Sh, Earl, Jesuit


Oxquarry Books


Acknowledgments Introduction








Bibliography  Index   


John Klause








In writing Faust, Goethe learned much from Hamlet. His Gretchen, in her innocence and loss of sanity, has a predecessor in Ophelia, one of whose songs in fact Mephistopheles heartlessly imitates.[1] His Faust, who is like Shakespeare’s Prince one of the most thought-oppressed and enigmatic of heroes, follows a world-weary Hamlet in contemplating suicide, driving his beloved mad, and killing her vengeful brother in a sword fight. Flights of angels carry Faust, if not “to” then “toward” his rest. In matters of dramatic and verbal style Goethe seems to have had Shakespeare’s blessing, which is conspicuously available in Hamlet, to mingle “Kings and clowns,” high eloquence and near doggerel, profound speculation and mundane pasquinade. Yet in the character of Wilhelm Meister, the German author spoke of Hamlet with some condescension, in words that have become notorious:


There is an oak-tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom; the roots expand, the jar is shivered.

A lovely, pure, noble and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him.[2]


The reason for Goethe’s pity, we may suspect, is not that Hamlet falls victim to neurasthenia but that he is, unlike the “modern” Faust, a “pre-modern” man. In spite of his intense self-consciousness, his irony, skepticism, and Angst, Hamlet seems (from the modern point of view) imprisoned in an antique world where “All duties are holy.” Conscience has not made of him a coward but has restricted him. Faust, the Übermensch whose conscience never dominates his thirst for experience and his need to be forever “striving,” could not approve of the renunciation, the self-reduction to which Hamlet professes to bind himself in the pursuit of justice:

Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandement all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter.
                                                                                                (Ham 1.5.98-104)


To extend Goethe’s implications: the Prince is not large enough to be a modern hero because he diminishes himself; he is not strong enough because he is weak with the need for an unalloyed goodness--in himself and in his world. His passions are titanic but simple: passion for duty, which obliges him to revenge, and (Freudianism aside) passion for the purity of his own and woman’s “sallied flesh.” His tragic errors are all reactive, never the consequences of a quest that he originates and prosecutes on his own. His limitations are those of a moralist whom a modern may admire with some nostalgia but cannot call an alter ego.

These same issues (though differently comprehended) are important for the modernist T. S. Eliot, who finds Hamlet’s “emotion” to be “in excess of the facts as they appear.” The “facts” as Eliot sees them are essentially two: the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sexual malfeasance of his mother; but the only one that matters to Eliot is the second, which Shakespeare developed mostly on his own, without much guidance from the primitive saga that provided the story of revenge. The “emotion” at issue, then, is Hamlet’s “disgust . . . occasioned by his mother”; but she is an inadequate “equivalent” (“objective correlative”) for the disgust since “her character is so negative and insignificant.” There must have been a “feeling” in the “writer,” urgent but mysterious to him, that led to such inexplicable superfluity. Eliot believed that Goethe imagined Hamlet a modern hero of a certain kind, “a Werther”; but Eliot wished that Shakespeare had made his character a man whose response to the world was narrowly ethical (what Goethe, it seems, actually thought that Hamlet was) and whose moral revulsion, sufficient of itself to lead to a tragic outcome, had stayed within the bounds of plausibility. A smaller, less modern hero, one whose troubles were not fraught with implications that Shakespeare could not understand, would have obviated the play’s “artistic failure.” A less ambitious play, one that told nothing more than it was able to mean, would have been a success.[3]

Goethe was surely right to emphasize Hamlet’s obsession with “conscience.”[4] From his first appearance in the play, when he cheerlessly acknowledges the force of the Everlasting’s canon (1.2.131-132), to the final scene, in which he appeals to conscience to justify his treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and to make requital of Claudius seem necessary (5.2.58, 67-68), Hamlet shows a fastidious concern for moral law. He fears the consequences of trespass, wondering if the Ghost may be a devil who “Abuses” him to “damn” him (2.2.603), shuddering at the dreams that may afflict those who fall guilty into the “sleep of death” (3.1.65). His thirst for righteousness is extreme: his uncle’s crime, his mother’s corruption, his lover’s innocent openness to compromise, and his own sins of omission (as he sees them) drive him almost to the madness that he pretends. He may feel no remorse for killing Polonius--can we trust Gertrude when she claims that “’a weeps for what is done” (4.1.27)?--but he knows that he must, if only by force of will, “repent” (3.4.173). Even his barbaric desire to damn Claudius’s soul originates in a moral calculus gone wildly wrong, not in the absence of one. If at times conscience seems to him an embarrassment, “some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th’ event-- / A thought which quarter’d hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward” (4.4.40-43), he can never bring himself to stifle it.

Conscience, however, does not displace other powers in Hamlet’s psyche: his imagination, curiosity, and cunning. It does not explain his calms and rages or his humor and melancholy. In itself it seems more complex and mysterious than a sense of duty or a rational judgment about right and wrong. Nor is conscience shown to us in a bell jar, through which we are meant to see it in isolation, as though the world to which it responds were not as important as itself. And that world, which is a field of perplexing and excruciating choices, is no smaller than the one in which Faust strives to embrace every alternative.

Eliot (however questionable many of his critical observations) was right to imply that the play aspired to be more than a domestic drama of vendetta and sexual guilt. It compels inquiries into being and non-being; belief, knowledge, and doubt; a heaven beyond the heaven fretted with golden fire; the quintessence of dust and the tormenting or restful dreams that may succeed a dusty death; a hell of purgative fire and a hell beyond that hell; the divine law governing life and death, and exemption from it proclaimed by a spirit of health or a goblin damned; outrageous fortune and a divinity that shapes our ends.

To realize his great ambitions for the play, Shakespeare had to create in it a world in which all of his momentous questions could naturally and forcefully suggest themselves. This world had to be in some sense universal, the place where, as Maynard Mack once suggested, life itself is a duel “in which evil holds the poisoned rapier” and Yorick’s is the “universal graveyard.”[5] Shakespeare’s sense of realism, however, dictated that his abstractions should rise out of “the very age and body of the time” (3.2.23-24). And to that body he gave such mass and weight that, like Faust, it constantly threatens to die in its “own too much” (4.7.118). Over 3500 lines in either of its authoritative versions, half again as long as the average play of its time, Hamlet was probably never acted by Shakespeare’s company in anything like its fullness.[6] Generations of readers have wondered why so much space is devoted to the Danes’ reputation for tippling and the moralizing therefrom, or to the lengthy preachment offered by Laertes to his sister and by Polonius to them both. Hamlet’s instructions to the actors have an interest in themselves and perhaps thematic significance; but his allusion to the child actors and their competition with the adult companies may seem thematically gratuitous. The vapidities of Osric are perhaps not essential to the drama; the Folio editors considered a whole scene (4.4.9-66) dispensable. There is a good modern explanation for such apparent otiosity:

Hamlet, in a multiplicity of ways, conveys the sense of complicated, familiar modern life opposing archaic, simpler, more stylised modes; its realism lies largely in its seeming waywardness, its accommodation of material which does not seem requisite for the purposes of conventional plotting, and in its dramatization of unconventional uncertainties. Part of this “waywardness” may be accidental; but the extent of the ironic linkages in the play suggests that Shakespeare is already exploring the principle which was to be perfected by Ibsen in plays like The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler: that of furthering the plot by means of material which initially seems digressive or trivial, and which can only in retrospect be seen as functional.[7]


This rationale can be only partial. Shakespeare seems to have written Hamlet to be oversized as well as vivid and penetrating, as though the play’s breadth and density were, even without subterranean dramatic “linkages,” necessary to its depth. His intention in this respect is worth exploring.

Eliot spoke of Hamlet as a “stratification,” referring as many other critics have done to the superimposition of contemporary manners and matters upon a primitive tale that had itself undergone more than one redaction.[8] In the eighteenth century, Thomas Warburton described the phenomenon in this way, referring to the Ghost’s words about its life in Purgatory:

Shakspeare, apparently through ignorance, makes Roman Catholicks of these pagan Danes; and here gives a description of purgatory; but yet mixes it with the Pagan fable of Lethe’s wharf. Whether he did it to insinuate to the zealous Protestants of his time, that the Pagan and Popish purgatory stood upon the same footing of credibility, or whether it was by the same kind of licentious inadvertence that Michael Angelo brought Charon’s bark into his picture of the Last Judgement, is not easy to decide.[9]


In spite of a certain obtuseness, Warburton understood that the author of Hamlet was reaching through eons to create the world of his play, and that the materials he derived from different ages might have meaning in their various transformations. Shakespeare wished to produce the broadest range of historical and geographical reference and allusion. He harks back beyond the antiquity of Norse legend to Greco-Roman myth (Hyperion, Jove, Mars, Mercury, and Hercules), to Greco-Roman legend (Priam, Hecuba, and Pyrrhus) and history both political and literary (Caesar and Nero, Plautus and Seneca), forward through medieval religious lore (St. Patrick). He seems to set the action of the play several hundred years before his own day, when England was “tributary” to Denmark (5.2.39), but locates Hamlet’s “school” in Wittenberg (1.2.113)--a modern university (if it is the “school” in question)[10]--and makes an irresistible pun on the sixteenth-century Diet of Worms (4.3.21). The action is centered in Denmark, but is directed throughout European Christendom, to England, Norway, Germany, Poland, and France. Vienna is the scene of “The Murder of Gonzago,” although the murdered Duke is Italian. Ophelia sings of pilgrims who travel to Walsingham (in Norfolk) and Compostela (in Spain). Denmark’s king has Switzers as guards, and other soldiers, Barnardo and Francisco, who seem Mediterranean. The king and prince of Norway have a French name, “Fortinbras.” “Laertes” and “Ophelia” are Greek; “Claudius,” “Polonius,” “Cornelius,” “Marcellus,” and “Lucianus,” Latin. “Horatio” is an English form but was the name (compare “Horacio”) of the murdered son in The Spanish Tragedy. It should not be forgotten either that the borders of this world are heaven, purgatory, and hell, and that their denizens have names too: the Everlasting, St. Gis, Old Mole, the Devil.

It is this macrocosm, then, not just the hero with his “problems,” that Shakespeare subjects, as Harry Levin said long before the word became fashionable, to interrogation. For some time the questioning was apt to be interpreted from the skeptical and secularly humanistic perspective of Montaigne.[11] Lately, however, the play has been read--its world defined and its characters judged--as a drama of religion or religious politics. Ever since Dover Wilson declared that the Ghost was “the linchpin of Hamlet[12] and found relevant to an understanding of the play the differing assumptions that Catholics and Protestants would have made about the spectre’s provenance and identity, sectarian analyses have burgeoned and produced opposing certainties: either that the Ghost was meant to be recognized as the spirit of Hamlet’s Catholic father, allowed out of his purgatorial “prison-house” to deliver a message of revenge endorsed by heaven--so that Hamlet did well not only to test the messenger but to heed the message, even at high tragic cost; or that the spirit was diabolical--unchristianly vain and vindictive, coming not from Purgatory (in which Protestants did not believe) but from a pagan underworld or Christian hell to damn the hero by persuading him to violate the divine injunction against revenge.[13] One study has attempted to demonstrate that Shakespeare made the Catholic Ghost only a single feature of a generally Catholic Denmark, so that his “anti-Catholic” drama might serve as “good Protestant propaganda”:

 Hamlet certainly believes in a revenge ghost from Purgatory but in the eyes of Shakespeare’s audience he was a fool to think so--and for Protestants in particular he was a Catholic whose obnoxious, nonsensical, heretical belief helped to lead him to damnation.[14]


Another argues that the play in its entirety is an “allegory of the Reformation”: Hamlet’s Denmark is Catholic and therefore corrupt, but the Prince comes to renounce his tainted heritage.[15] At this point we have almost returned to the ruminations of Warburton.

On the whole it is true (as must be shown) that Shakespeare has mined the various “strata” out of which the world of Hamlet has been created and placed them in a Catholic matrix, without the purpose, however, of fashioning simplistic propaganda. The ambitious playwright, with too much to say, wished his work to be rather an enterprise “of great pitch and moment.” To that end he chose a Catholic scene, into which he introduced a drama that contained elements he had already developed, but of course with far less complexity, in Lucrece and Titus, and most recently in Julius Caesar.

As strange as it may seem, in Shakespeare’s imaginative geography the road to Elsinore, and to the “undiscover’d country” beyond, passes through Rome. Hamlet not only rehearses thoughts of antique Roman suicide, revenge, and political revolt; the play takes up again (as we shall see) the neo-Roman politics of martyrdom. Its characters, however, are much less stylized than those of the Roman poem and plays, its thought-world more spacious and confused, its moral vision more complicated by a troubling metaphysic. Large and multifarious in its concerns, truly multifocal, it contains among its many perspectives more than one that would have been of intense interest to the earl of Southampton as the old century died and a new one came to be.

In 1599, at about the time that Julius Caesar was on stage at the Globe, Southampton was in Ireland, where near the end of a failed military expedition and mired in political discontent he helped to dissuade his friend and general Essex from assuming the role of Brutus and invading London.[16] Shakespeare had by then frequently written of rebellion, and in doing so had told stories of Southampton’s remote ancestors, John of Gaunt and Warwick the King-maker,[17] whose attitudes toward revolution (as the playwright portrays them) differed markedly from each other. When Hamlet was being written or perhaps staged,[18] Southampton decided to become a rebel himself, heading for the catastrophe in which Shakespeare’s Richard II would play a part, and to which, some believe, Shakespeare responded in Troilus and Cressida.[19] For whatever reasons, what was on Southampton’s mind in the year before his tragic “error” was also (though perhaps with considerations more nuanced) on Shakespeare’s: praise (subtly mingled with doubt) for (the ambiguously heroic) Essex in Henry V, ambivalent reflection on political violence in Julius Caesar and Hamlet.

 Philip Edwards succinctly summarizes the companion qualities of these last two plays, in arguing for the “identification of the two killers, Brutus and Hamlet”:

Once again [in Hamlet] Burbage plays the part of the intellectual as well-intentioned assassin. In both Julius Caesar and Hamlet, a bookish, reflective man, honoured by his friends and associates, is summoned to a major political task requiring complete personal involvement and a violent physical assault. The assassination that is to purify Rome is quickly decided on and quickly carried out. The greater part of the play is devoted to the disastrous consequences of killing Caesar. In Hamlet, the deed which is to purify Denmark is extraordinarily delayed; most of the play is devoted to disasters in the course of doing the deed. But both plays end in political failure. In neither Rome nor Denmark does the political future turn out as it was desired and planned by the hero. What spiritual triumph there is in both plays is muted. That Hamlet is a reworking of the basic underlying theme of Julius Caesar, namely the commitment of the philosopher-hero to violent action in order to remove an intruder from the government of the state and restore an ideal condition belonging to former times, seems . . . undeniable.[20]

Described in this way, however, the two plays are somewhat too companionate. Although Julius Caesar has a ghost, and Brutus views the killing of Caesar as an act of ritual sacrifice performed for the “gods” (JC 2.1.173), the play’s vision is primarily ethical. Brutus is indeed a Stoic “philosopher-hero” (and a flawed one), whose politics are rational. The Ghost in Hamlet, unlike his Roman counterpart, confounds philosophy, coming from a region beyond the realm of earthly conscience and prudential judgment. Horatio, not Hamlet the man of wild “offenses,” is Denmark’s Stoic. Hamlet admires his friend for not being passion’s slave, but also tells him that the dreams of “philosophy” are too limited (Ham 3.1.124, 3.2.72,

 Beyond philosophy was religion, which had no single meaning for the members of Shakespeare’s heterogeneous audience. Shakespeare must have hoped that Southampton (who attended the theater “every Day” in 1599 after returning from Ireland)[21] would eventually see his play and find in it significance that a Catholic mind could appreciate. For inspiration in constructing a Catholic scene and framing Catholic issues Shakespeare resorted as persistently as he had ever done or would ever do again to the work of Southampton’s cousin and his own, Robert Southwell, whose words the playwright had over the years not managed or wished to forget.




Even a desultory search through Southwell’s prose and poetry can produce evidence that, as we should by now expect, Shakespeare had so etched their language into the table of his memory that it was available to appear, transformed, in Hamlet. Among the more immediately conspicuous precedents for the playwright’s expressions are these:


                                                            [lust is a]
  Moth [i.e.,mote”] of the mind, Eclypse of reasons light:
The grave of grace, the mole of natures rust. . . .
                                                                        (“Lewd Love is Losse,” 38-39)

Shakespeare has divided Southwell’s lines, apportioning the first part to Horatio: “A mote ["moth" in the 1604 Quarto] it is to trouble the mind’s eye. . . . / The graves . . . / the star . . . / sick . . . with eclipse” (1.1.112-20);[22] and the second part to Hamlet: “some vicious mole of nature” (1.4.24).[23] In Southwell’s famous poem “The burning Babe,” the divine child, having appeared with his message on “Christmasse day,” at last “vanisht out of sight, / And swiftly shrunk away” (29-32). When the Ghost of Hamlet’s father began to speak to Horatio, but heard the cock begin to crow, “it shrunk in haste away / And vanish’d from our sight” (1.2.217-19). For the sake of logic, Shakespeare reverses the order of the clauses, but otherwise the quotation is almost exact, and in a context (the disappearance of a spirit, the association of an extended cock-crow with the “season” of “our Saviour’s birth” [1.1.158-60]) which makes the echo certain.[24] There are other parallel passages that might be considered quotations: the Humble Supplication’s “they . . . dismantled the Realme of her sacred Majestie” (23-4) becomes in Hamlet “This realm dismantled was / Of Jove himself” (3.2.282-83); a verse from Saint Peters Complaint, “The dispossessed divels that out I threw” (607), is incorporated almost entirely into a textually defective line spoken by Hamlet to his mother: “either [...] the devil or throw him out” (3.4.169).[25] One can make a miscellany of locutions from Hamlet that seem to have been inspired by Southwell: “A double blessing is a double grace”; “assays of bias”; “I have . . . lost all my mirth”; “cess of majesty”; “Convert his gyves to graces”; “Woo’t weep, woo’t fight, woo’t fast, woo’t tear thyself? / Woo’t drink up eisel, eat a crocadile?” (compare Southwell’s “doubled Grace”; “assay of . . . bias”; “I have lost my mirth”; “Majesties . . . cessed”; “her gyves are bandes of salvation . . . converted”; “weepest . . . fought . . . fast,” “teareth . . . scourge,” “draughte of eysell,” “feede on . . . crocodyle,” “eate . . . the Crocodyle”).[26] There are twenty words common to the two authors that Shakespeare uses in Hamlet and nowhere else.[27] Some of Southwell’s words are part of the play’s special vocabulary: “housel,” “rub” (the noun),” “contumely,” “fardle,” and “hoysed.”[28] It is in fact inconceivable that Hamlet would read as it does, almost scene by scene, without the underlay of Southwell’s texts.

Dover Wilson looked upon the first act of Hamlet as “a little play in itself, and the Ghost the hero of it; 550 of 850 lines are concerned with him.”[29] Many of those lines and some of the features of the Ghost were influenced by Southwell’s writings.

Commentators have tended to agree with Marcellus’s characterization of the spirit as a “majestical” figure (1.1.143). As Frye has remarked, “this ghost conveys a dignity never before seen in a specter on the Elizabethan stage.”[30] It moves with “solemn march . . .  / Slow and stately.” It is clad in armor, showing itself in “fair and warlike form,” no


                        filthy whining ghost,
            Lapt in some foul sheet or a leather pilch,
            [That comes] screaming like a pig half-stickt,
            And cries “Vindicta! revenge, revenge!”[31]


It is the only ghost from the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama that professes to come from Purgatory instead of hell,[32] and that might carry with it (in the minds of some in its audience) a divine command. For all this, it inspires “fear” as well as “wonder” (1.1.44), and since it “May be a dev’l [in] a pleasing shape” its identity must be tested (2.2.599-604).

Southwell wrote about spectral apparitions, both satanic and heavenly. His Saint Peter suspected that he had seen “a messenger from hell” (SPC, 599); but the Jesuit preferred to imagine angelic ambassadors, especially those who, like the Ghost in Hamlet, were martial in their appearance. Prosser believed that “Shakespeare’s audience” considered “armed spirits demonic”--as did Le Loyer, a sixteenth-century Catholic writer on ghost lore.[33] Southwell thought differently. “Angels,” he wrote, “for the benefitt of bodies, have suted their shapes to the request of their Ministeries . . . , appearing like soldiers, as to Josua” (HS, 9). The reference is to Joshua 5:13-14, which tells of a divine messenger with sword in hand, “a captaine of the hoste of the Lorde,” who had come to signal the massacre of the people of Jericho. Or again,

Did not Angels alwaies in their visible semblaunces, represent their lords invisible pleasure, shadowing in their shapes the drift of his intentions? When God was incensed they brandished swords. . . . When hee would defend, they resembled souldiers, when he would terrify they took terrible forms (MMFT, 26r).

That the Ghost of the elder Hamlet appeared a King “in complete steel . . . / So horridly to shake [the] disposition” of those to whom he showed himself (1.4.51-52; cf. Southwell’s EC, 98v: “the King him selfe . . . in complet harnesse”) might well then be a sign not of its diabolical character but of its authority from on high. Why would not a soul that comes from Purgatory with a message follow angelic practice? In writing of the spirit “in complete steel,” however, Shakespeare could have recalled the passage cited above from Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares, along with a description, a few pages later, of the saint as “armed in complete love” (38r). This irony, if such it is, suggests that material from Southwell will hardly simplify interpretation of the Ghost, or of anything else in Hamlet.

Throughout the “little play” of the Ghost there are other marks of Southwell’s influence. In the first scene, besides the language and concept of the “mote . . . to trouble the mind’s eye,” one might consider as affected by Southwell Horatio’s description of the “cock, that is trumpet to the morn,” who “Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat / Awake the god of day” (150-52). In Saint Peters Complaint there is a “cock,” a “wakefull bird, proclaymer of the day,” whose throat utters a “piersing note,” used by God to challenge the “lofty” (259-63, 274). When Horatio recalls portents of Caesar’s ancient fall, he imagines tenantless “graves . . . and . . . sheeted dead . . . , / dews of blood, Disasters in the sun” (115-18). There is similar language in Funeral Teares, which reports that Lazarus in his “grave . . . was shrowded in sheetes” before he rose and left it empty; which also speaks of “showres of blood” and “the Sunne forsak[ing] heaven” (53r, 45v, 61v).[34]

Hints of the Funeral Teares carry over into scene 2, which begins with Claudius’s half-apology for the “mirth in funeral” of a wedding celebrated soon after the death of his predecessor. Hamlet then speaks bitterly of the “customary suits of solemn black” which he but not the revelers finds appropriate. The King acknowledges his nephew’s right to “give . . . mourning duties to [his] father,” but would not have him grieve inordinately. He wishes to keep Hamlet “Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye.” Southwell too, within a narrow compass, creates a speaker who tries to mitigate the grief that has “gotten absolute . . . conquest over all [the] powers” of one who cannot forget the death of her Lord. He speaks of “funerall” and “myrth” (27v-28r), a “blacke & mourning weede” that “did better become” an angel in white if mourning were called for (23v), of “duties to the dead” not truly appropriate where “supposals” were false (25v) (“supposal” is unique in Shakespeare at 1.2.18), and of angels who, when God used them to “comfort . . . , carried mirth in their eyes” (26r; cf. SPC, 325-27: “thine eyes . . . chearing raies that made misfortune sweet”).

Claudius’s exchange with Hamlet owes more, however, to another work by Southwell, The Triumphs over Death, written in 1591 (but published in 1596) to console Philip Howard, earl of Arundel, on the death of his half-sister, Lady Margaret Sackville. The theme of the Triumphs made it an obvious source of ideas and wording for a playwright who had to construct a dialogue on the necessity and limits of grief for a departed loved one; and it is clear that Shakespeare made good use of the opportunity it offered him. There are perhaps recollections of the early pages of the Triumphs in Hamlet’s “A little more than kin, and less than kind” [i.e., less than natural] (65; cf. “under colour of kindness be unnatural” [TD, 3]); and in Gertrude’s “Thou know’st ’tis common, all that lives must die” (72; cf. “If [death] be grievous, it is also common . . . , the case equally afflicting all” [TD, 12-13]). The most striking parallels, however, occur between the lecture that Claudius gives to Hamlet on the immoderateness of his grief and Southwell’s homily to Philip Howard on the same subject. The King says,

’tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet
To give these mourning duties to your father.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
                        the survivor [is] bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow.


The Jesuit assures Howard that it is “convenient to the nature of man” to experience a heavy weight of sorrow for the “sweet subject” he has lost. Weeping is in fact a duty, for “Scripture . . . moveth us to bring forth our tears on the dead” (TD, 2). The “obligation for some term” referred to by Claudius was considered to be a biblical one, which Southwell states explicitly: “Ecclesiasticus (22.13) alloweth but seven days [two, in fact] to mourning . . . , [to] sorrow for the dead” (TD, 3; also 8: “term”; 14: “survivors.” Cf. Ecclus 38:17). The King proceeds, however, to protest extremes :


                                    to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness, ’tis unmanly grief,
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .
. . . the most vulgar thing to sense.
. . . Fie, ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers. . . .

This follows closely the language of the Triumphs: “not to bear [death] with moderation, is . . . effeminate . . . Some are so obstinate in their own evil [wil, in the first edition], that even time. . . cannot . . . asssuage their grief” (TD, 2-3; also 4: “condoling”; 13: “course”; 11: “impiety”). Claudius emphasizes shortcomings in mourners of the “will . . . heart . . . mind . . . understanding . . . sense.” Southwell does likewise, of the  sense . . . understanding . . . mind . . . will . . . hearts” (TD, 2-4); and like Claudius, he speaks of the “fault” of sadness--not only to “heaven,”  but to “nature” (it is “unnatural to ourselves” [TD, 3]), to “reason” (“making sorrow a [signal], not a superior of reason” [TD, 3]), and “against the dead” (“Scripture warneth us . . . to reject [sadness] as a thing not beneficial to the dead” [TD, 3; cf. also “commonest theame” (7); “impatience” (26); “vulgar” (17)]).

Hamlet’s woes are too deep to be assuaged by the “sensible” counsel of his uncle, and when the Prince is left alone, he imagines relief in oblivion:

O that this too too sallied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!


The words and images, though not all of the sentiments, derive from another of Southwell’s works, his Epistle unto His Father: the melting and thawing (“thaw and melt” [EF, 4]) of the “sallied” or sullied flesh (the “ordure” in which the “soul” is “channeled” [16]), a body which would decompose into its moist elements (“[he] made his body as a cloud to resolve into showers” [16]); as well as the concept of everlastingness (“everlasting” [20]), canonical obligation (“canon” [13]), and suicide (“murthering yourself” [19]). The similarity in language is not merely coincidental, for many other passages in Hamlet are inspired by the same work, some to be considered later, a few to be noted now--Hamlet’s paean to the “man” of the Renaissance, for instance:


What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties . . . , how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god . . . ! the paragon of animals . . . (2.2.303-07).

In the Epistle man is described as “of so peerless dignity” (15) and though less than “perfect in all faculties” (9), still with a “compass and capacity” that only the “illimitable . . . God” can fill (15), “so noble a paragon” (16), whom “the angels . . . delight to behold” (17) (also,  piece of art . . . reason” [13]; “infinite” [15]; a list of animals [16]).[35] Late in the play, when Laertes protests that to his dead father’s good friends “I’ll ope my arms, / And like the kind life-rend’ring pelican, / Repast them with my blood” (4.7.146-48), he echoes Southwell’s message to his father: “you are not so tied to the straits of a pelican as to revive your issue with murthering yourself” (19; and “blood . . . repast” [15]). Hamlet’s “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” is based on a verse in the Gospel of Matthew (10:29); Southwell quotes its continuation--”the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (EF, 17)--right in the midst of the other passages (most of them on pages 15-20) whose influence on the play has just been suggested.

The play’s third scene, which contains the stern prudential and moral advice of Laertes and Polonius to Ophelia, and their forbidding her Hamlet’s company, shows Shakespeare still mindful of the Triumphs over Death. Laertes’ “double grace” (TD, 35) is mentioned here, at the end of the speech in which he warns his sister that Hamlet is an inappropriate lover:

His greatness weigh’d, his will is not his own,
For he himself is subject to his birth:
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state,
And therefore must his choice be circumscrib’d. . . .


This is essentially the same observation that Southwell had made to the earl of Arundel to remind him of the importance of his example to the lower orders:


Great personages. . . , as they cannot but be themselves, so may not they use the liberty of meaner estates; the laws of nobility not allowing them to direct their deeds by their desires . . . (TD, 17). The motion of your heart measureth the beating of many pulses, which in any distemper of your quiet . . . , will soon bewray themselves sick of your disease . . . (TD, 17).

The image of the leader carving for others seems to have been interpolated into Laertes’ lines from Southwell’s Funeral Teares, which contains in a sentence words likely to have suggested it: “carved . . . as the vice-gerent” (21v). As Laertes continues, parts of his speech are reminiscent of the Epistle of Comfort:

Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes.
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclos’d,
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Contagious blastments are most imminent.

Compare Southwell:

The devill desireth . . . to blast virtue in the budd, before it growe either to fruite or flower . . . , killing [the] babes. . . . If any escape [they will be bitten] with detractious slaunders (EC, 4v-5r; and 9v: “cancred”; 16r: “gall”).

Ophelia replies to her brother:

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads. . . .

Her response, too, sounds like Southwell’s moralizing:


The path to heaven is narrowe, rough, and full of weerisome and tyeringe ascents, neither can it be trodden without great toyle. . . . [It is not] besett with . . . flowers (EC, 53r, 54r). How manye be there that runn dalyinge . . . and prepare their waye to hell with singing & daunsing (EC, 15v-16r; and 11v: “thorne”; 12v: “puffed upp”; 18r: “hedge in thy way with thornes”).[36]


When Polonius enters the scene we are back again in the Triumphs, parcels of his advice resembling not only Burghley’s counsel to his son, or Euphues’ precepts,[37] but Southwell’s praise of the late Lady Margaret Sackville and his exhortation to her brother:

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy, rich, not gaudy,
For the apparel oft proclaims the man. . . .
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
This above all: to thine own selfe be true. . . .

Her attire was ever such as might both satisfy a curious eye, and yet bear witness to a sober mind: neither singular nor vain (TD, 6). Be beholding to yourself (TD, 16). To be herself, was her greatest praise. . . . (TD, 32).[38]

In another book, Short Rules of a Good Life, Southwell has a long set of behavioral precepts which help to fill up the traditional list from which Polonius draws; among them are: “it is good to be rather sparing in words and readier to hear than to speak” (SR, 36; cf. “Give thy thoughts no tongue . . . / Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice” [1.3.59, 68]); “I must . . . [avoid] bitter taunts, and sharp words” (SR, 36; cf. “Beware / Of entrance to a quarrel” [1.3.65-66]); “Mine apparel must be free from lightness or . . . gaudiness. . . . It must be handsome . . . , without singularity, that therein the staidness and seemly estate of my soul may be perceived” (SR, 36; cf. “rich, not gaudy . . . the apparel oft proclaims the man” [1.3.70-72]). Finally, when Polonius turns to Ophelia and ridicules Hamlet’s “tenders of . . . affection” to her (1.3.110; cf. “a most tender affection” [TD, 1]), he calls the Prince’s vows “springes to catch woodcocks,” which are much like the “silly birds . . . stuck in the lime-bush” found in Southwell’s Triumphs (1.3.115; TD, 29).

The Ghost returns in the following scenes, after Hamlet’s disquisition on the “mole of nature.” The spirit beckons Hamlet to leave his company and step away with it, stirring fear in Horatio that it might tempt his friend “to the dreadful summit of the cliff / That beetles o’er his base into the sea,” a “place” that “puts toys of desperation . . . into every brain / That looks so many fadoms to the sea / And hears it roar beneath” (1.4.57-78). Southwell wrote a poem about such a “place”--”dreadfull,” with “hanging clifts” and waters that “roare” beneath, a scene so “vast” with “horror low and hie, / That who it viewes must needs remaine agast” (“A vale of teares,” 33, 1, 3, 12, 26-29; and see, in the next poem in the manuscript order, “toies . . . of despair”: the collocation "toys of despair/desperation" is uniquely shared by Southwell and Shakespeare [Chadwyck/Healey]. [54-58]).[39]

Going nevertheless where the Ghost leads, Hamlet hears from him a story of “Murther most foul” and “damned incest.” Some of it is told out of Southwell’s pages. The scene of the treachery is set in an “orchard” where a “serpent . . . did sting” the elder Hamlet’s “life.” The murderer is identified as Claudius, “an adulterate beast / With witchcraft of his wits,” who pours a “leprous distillment” into the ears of his victim. The “juice . . . courses through / The natural gates and alleys of the body,” and curds the blood like “droppings into milk,” so that the skin is “bark’d about . . . lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust.” The King is thus “cut off even in the blossoms of [his] sin, / Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d” (1.5.35-77). This is Southwellian vocabulary, much of it found close together in the Epistle of Comfort in the vicinity of passages already noted:  stunge by venemous serpentes”; “aduoultresse”; “be[a]st”; “witchcraftes”; “distilleth”; “leaprosye”; “poysened juyce of certayne hearbes”; “our eares . . . are open gates”; “Allyes . . . Arbours . . . plantes of pyning corrosives . . . Whose barke is bale”; “milke”; “droppinges”; “the bark and rind of a man”; “lazars”; “vyld”; “lothsome”; “crust”; “cut of[f]”; “housled.”[40] Part of the Ghost’s fierce complaint has roots in Southwell’s Epistle unto His Father:

 So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.


Shall we gorge the devil with our fairest fruits and turn God to feed on the filthy scraps of his leavings? (EF, 14-15; and “angels . . . linked” [EF, 19])


In leaving Gertrude to “those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her” (1.5.87-8) the Ghost seems to invoke Southwell’s “the sting and prick of a festered conscience” (EF, 10).

Hamlet’s immediate response to the specter’s story and injunctions is to swear a ferocious single-mindedness:


                        from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
And thy commandement all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain. . . .


In doing so he reminds one of Southwell’s Marie Magdalen, though the passion of the commissioned revenger is hardly that of the devoted saint: “[of] her sweetest memories . . . she had not feared to break the Table. . . . Her love would not have a thought to spare, nor a minute to spend, in any other action” (MMFT, 5r, 12v).

At the departure of the Ghost and the appearance of Horatio and Marcellus, Hamlet speaks to his friends “wild and whirling words.” He assures Horatio “by Saint Patrick” (the patron of an Irish cave that served as a version of “Purgatory” and was a favorite site of pilgrims) that the Ghost was “honest.” But then in a comic episode in which Hamlet swears his associates to secrecy about the vision, he seems to play the conjurer with the now subterranean spirit who joins him in an exchange which has about it an “aura of diabolism,”[41] as though the now antic hero were a medieval Vice-figure sparring with “the fellow in the cellarage.” “Cellarage,” according to the OED, was a word first used in print by Shakespeare; and it has been speculated that it was “a theatrical name for the place under the stage.”[42] Whatever the term’s origins, it is likely that the playwright conceived of a spirit in the cellar because Southwell had imagined that spirits owned such places (EC, 8v: “gods seller”; MMFT, 55v: “the Cellers of Angels”) in which to store their metaphorical wines (the “pressed” souls of martyrs, the liquor of a penitent’s tears). After his adjurations and his disclosure to Horatio of a plan to “put an antic disposition on,” Hamlet bids the “perturbed spirit” rest. He complains, “The time is out of joint--O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5.188-89), perhaps recalling a biblical text that Southwell happens to quote: “redeeming the time because the days be evil” (EF, 18; Eph. 5:16).

The Second Act of Hamlet introduces the motif of espionage, which will assert itself ever more forcefully in the rest of the play. Polonius sets Reynaldo spying on Laertes, brings Ophelia into his scheme to eavesdrop on Hamlet, and is later killed in the midst of an investigation. Claudius joins with his Chamberlain in covert observations. He commissions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, but becomes the victim of his nephew’s counter-espionage in the Third Act’s “Mouse-trap.” When Hamlet is on his way to England, his instinctive need for intelligence leads him to unseal and read the letter that carries instructions for his murder, and he takes a secret agent’s delight in forging a message that will turn the instructions against his escorts’ heads.

With secrets to keep and discover, Claudius is the play’s fons et origo of pernicious surveillance and double-dealing. It is the “tedious old fool” Polonius, however, who delights in such work, becoming the object, as has been proposed, of “personal satire.”[43] Some have seen in him features of Lord Burghley, several of whose Precepts for his son Robert Cecil resemble those of Polonius to Laertes and whose daughter, Anne, Burghley had hoped would marry Sir Philip Sidney (courtier, soldier, and scholar, “Th’ expectation and rose of the fair state” [3.1.151-52]), just as Gertrude had desired Ophelia for Hamlet.[44] Burghley was a major figure in the Elizabethan intelligence system, but not as fully engaged with it as was Sir Francis Walsingham. Since one need not assume that Shakespeare meant to suggest any single person in the character of Polonius and may have combined in him aspects of different individuals, it is fair to consider the lineaments of Mr. Secretary Walsingham in Claudius’s counsellor--especially since there is warrant in Southwell’s writings for doing so.

Like Burghley and many others, Walsingham once drew up a set of instructions for one of his kinsmen who intended to travel abroad--advice somewhat more pious and patriotic than that of Cecil or Polonius.[45] Also like Burghley he had a daughter, Frances, who was meant to marry Sir Philip Sidney, and did become his wife. It would be only natural for Shakespeare to think of the Secretary in connection with the Norfolk village from which his family in fact derived his name, the site of a famous shrine to the Virgin Mary much visited by the devout before its spoliation by Henry VIII--a place to which Ophelia alludes in her ballad of the Walsingham pilgrim (4.5.23-32). And since Sir Francis was such a prominent figure, the playwright may well have known, as Camden would report, that by the time of his death in 1590 he had “exhausted his own fortune by great sums of money laid out” in the running of his secret service, and was, because of his debts (and at his own request) “buried at St. Paul’s in darkness and without solemn funeral rites.”[46] “Maimed,” of course, were the burial services of both Polonius and his daughter (4.5.84; 5.1.219).

Of greatest concern to Southwell and to most Catholics about Walsingham was that he was the prince of spies. A good portion of the Jesuit’s Humble Supplication is given to detailing and condemning the ingenious devices for spying and secret provocation developed in “Sir Francis his fine head” (HS, 19; cf. the skull of a lawyer, “his fine pate,” contemplated by Hamlet in the graveyard [5.1.107]). Whereas Southwell acknowledges his adversary a genius, Polonius is nothing of the sort; but Shakespeare applies Southwell’s words about the greater man to the lesser, and sometimes lets the lesser speak them. Polonius, like the Supplication’s Walsingham, is in Hamlet’s mind a “fishmonger” (2.2.174)--a dealer in fish whose “baytes,” set by himself and his intelligencers, are to lure their prey onto his hooks (cf. HS, 18). It is with the “bait of falsehood” that he would “take [the] carp of truth” (2.1.60). (Southwell had observed that “Many carpes are expected when curious eyes come a fishing” [MMFT, A8v].) Polonius sends a spy to Paris, with the instruction to “sound” his party by devious means, by a certain “encompassment and drift of question,” and “with assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out” (2.1.7, 10, 62-3). Southwell was especially concerned with Walsingham’s spies in Paris, where servants of the Queen of Scots had operated; but the espionage system was widespread, and its many victims found it impossible to “have compassed [the] drift” of “Master Secretaryes fine devices.” They were “drawne . . . by . . . indirect courses,” “carried away with [a] byas,” “sounded afarr of[f],” the informers “not revealing any direct intention, but soe nicely glauncing at generall points, with yfs and ands, that they never understood the language, till effects did Conster those roving speeches” (HS, 24, 25, 20; and cf. MMFT, A5r-v: “assay of . . . bias”). The strategy, while more expert than the suggestions made by Polonius to Reynaldo (“roving speeches” in themselves), is of the same character.[47]

In his Supplication Southwell displays a special animus against several of Sir Francis Walsingham’s spies and provocateurs, one of them being Robert Poley (or Pooley, or, as he signed his name, Poly). Southwell considered Poley to be “deepe in the very bottom” of the Babington plot against Elizabeth’s life, but as Walsingham’s agent to draw in conspirators and foment a conspiracy which the government might manipulate and quell for its own political purposes (HS, 18). After Walsingham’s death in 1590, Poley (who was present at the killing of Marlowe) seems to have passed into the service of the Cecils, receiving payments from the government until 1601.[48] Whoever was Poley’s employer when Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus seems to have been at that time the recipient of the playwright’s cryptic and indignant complaint. After learning the truth about his daughter’s rape and mutilation, an outraged Titus cries out to the heavens:

Magni dominator poli,
Tam lentus audis scelera? tam lentus vides?
[Ruler of the great sky above,
Are you so slow to hear crimes? So slow to see them?]
                                                                                                (Titus 4.1.81-82)[49]


The quotation is from Seneca but is not exact, for the original, in Phaedra, begins “Magne regnator deum” (“Great ruler of the gods”). Shakespeare has conflated the dramatic text with part of Seneca’s Epistle 107, in which one finds “parens celsique dominator poli” (“father and ruler of the lofty sky”).[50] The conflation is probably not accidental. For those inclined to notice a macaronic pun, the dominator of “great Poley” is his spy-master, who turns his own ears and eyes from the scelera committed under his authority. The political reading of Titus offered earlier should make such a word-game plausible in that play. And this allusion to the spy “Poley” might make one wonder if in Hamlet Shakespeare had him in mind in naming the inquisitorial Polonius (who seems to have nothing at all to do with “Poland” but much with spying), as he had thought of so many other names mentioned in Southwell’s works for characters in his dramas. Some readers have puzzled over the changes, reflected in the First Quarto, of “Polonius” to “Corambis,” and of “Reynaldo” to “Montano.” The “double substitution” seems to be “part of a single process,” and the possibility of a “topical allusion” has occurred to commentators, who have been tempted to consider that the changes, even though the Second Quarto and the Folio show that if authorial they were temporary, were made out of an impromptu burst of political sensitivity, like the permanent alteration of “Oldcastle” to “Falstaff.”[51] Since “Polonius” is a pun that one might eventually see through (given other topical allusions in the play), and since guesses about the identity of the “Fox” Reynaldo could be legion,[52] Shakespeare or his colleagues or the First Quarto’s reporters may have at one point judged it the better part of prudence to make the nomenclature less provocative. “Montanus” appears in the Epistle of Comfort (84v); perhaps Southwell was of help even here.[53]

At the end of the second Act, Hamlet himself decides to turn detective: “The play’s the thing” to test the word of the Ghost and to search the conscience of the King. Like any educated Christian, he is aware that the spirit he has seen “May be a dev’l” (2.2.599). In his powers of deceit, “Satan himselfe is transformed into an Angel of light,” says St. Paul (whom Southwell quotes on the subject); and St. John (in a verse from which Southwell also quotes) warns the faithful, “beleeve not every spiritt, but trie the spirits whether they are of God” (2 Cor. 11:14; SR, 53; 1 John 4:1; EC, 83r). Yet in the following scene, even as he sets his plans, Hamlet remains “Th’ observ’d of all observers.” Claudius, disappointed in the lack of intelligence from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, joins Polonius in having Ophelia “Affront” the Prince with prayer book in hand, so that they might secretly witness his dealings with her. Polonius regrets the need to use the show of an act of devotion to further his scheme, knowing it is blameworthy to “sugar o’er / The devil.” The King privately agrees: “O, ‘tis too true! / How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!” (3.1.47-49; cf. 3.1.47-48; cf. Southwell, SPC, 671-72: “Thy sugred poyson . . . hast made me to my selfe a hell”; MMFT, 40r: “my stripes would smart in his guilty minde, and his conscience bleede”). Hamlet then enters, posing to himself the largest of questions. And as he does so--so intrusive are those who consider themselves “lawful espials” (3.1.32)--he is watched.[54]

“To be, or not to be. . . .” The “question” has often been misconstrued, as though Hamlet were deliberating whether to take his own life.[55] It would be strange, though not psychologically impossible, if, newly excited by his plan to authenticate the story of the Ghost and thus remove a great obstacle to action, he were suddenly and without impetus to become overwhelmed by a sense of futility and despair.[56] His earlier thoughts of “self-slaughter” were those not of a suicide, but of a suicide-fancier (1.2.132). His current thoughts are braver and more complex:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep--
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep--
To sleep, perchance to dream--ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin; who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins rememb’red.

The soliloquy is not primarily an expression of a longing for rest, but an exploration of a “question,” originally posed as: is it “nobler” to endure outrage or to die in striving to overcome it; to “suffer” troubles or to end them by being overcome in the “sea” against which one takes futile arms. In other words, which is the nobler martyrdom, that of patience or action? Hamlet at first addresses the question of “being” on ethical rather than prudential grounds. He speaks in generalities and abstractions; but these are not, as some have claimed, irrelevant to his own predicament.[57] Clearly partial to action (at least theoretically), he is surely aware that his mission of revenge could well eventuate in his own death: “I do not know,” he later complains, “Why yet I live to say, ‘This thing’s to do’” (4.4.43-44). And his first response to the thought of death is a not entirely credible bravado: to die is to sleep, nothing more; and sleep, as one wants “to say,” ends heart-ache. This is a rationalization (a common one) to make palatable the action that leads to death, and therefore to make action more likely. But if death is ease, is the action that brings it “nobler” than suffering? Hamlet slips for the moment from the high heroic ground to the safe savannah of a comfortable expediency, the territory not of the hero but “of us all.” In a world of agony and injustice, “who would not” want, simply, peace--especially if it may be bought so cheaply as with a knife? Sleep, however, may not bring peace but eschatological nightmares, and that possibility inspires fear in the coward who prefers to “suffer” torments known to those unknown. Is Hamlet thus intimidated? Is he one of “us,” les gens, in the pale, frightened, cast of his thought? Would he slip eagerly into oblivion if oblivion were painless and safe? He is ready enough to call himself “muddy-mettled,” “pigeon-liver’d,” and “craven” (2.2.567, 577; 4.4.40). But he has also something in him that despises universal weakness--the debility of the suicidal as well as the timorousness of the conscience-ridden. Both types fear pain, and their recoil from it may turn awry enterprises of great pitch and moment. And he will not give up “action.”

Strictly speaking, it is not conscience that “makes” a coward; the moral voice tells those already cowardly why they should fear. Conscience may make martyrs as well as caitiffs. Since Hamlet has not yet proved the Ghost to be a spirit of health, he does not yet have the moral sanction to die in the bloody act that he contemplates. Perhaps Hamlet believes for the moment that this fact excuses inaction too easily, is too convenient for the “coward,” allowing him to go on living and suffering in his timidity. He seems to want to cast aside this scruple and, as Laertes would do later, “dare damnation” on his way to revenge. But if he were certain that Laertes’ attitude were not just braver than conscientiousness but “nobler in the mind” (is it indeed ignoble to fear the damnation that a crime would risk?), he would probably agonize less profoundly over his task. He tries hard in the course of the play to damage his soul, to model himself on Pyrrhus or Fortinbras, to make himself an assassin thirsty to send his victim to hell. He becomes in fact, after “proving” the Ghost honest, a killer. But as Goethe recognized, he could never slip out of the toils of conscience. Even as he dies he asks Horatio to report “me and my cause aright” (5.2.339). Some might read this as a Renaissance man’s concern for mere “reputation.” But it is not the reputation of a soldier that he craves (and which Fortinbras assumes that he deserves) but that of a man who died, rightly, for a “cause.” As Saint Augustine proclaimed, and as Robert Southwell repeated, “causa, non poena, martyrem facit”: it is the cause, not the suffering, that makes a martyr (EC, 185r).

When Shakespeare reflected on martyrdom in Lucrece and in Titus, his thoughts had Southwell’s writings for their context. Hamlet’s great soliloquy on mortality, imbued as it is with “traditional” ideas and with the language of stoic and skeptic,[58] is also Shakespeare’s response to works of the Jesuit martyr, who often stared outrageous fortune in the face, knew the seductions of death, and preached the glory of taking (metaphorical) arms in which one was sure, for the “cause,” to be destroyed. There are voices in Southwell’s poetry of a deep malaise like Hamlet’s. Saints Joseph and Peter themselves are tired of life (“Josephs Amazement,” 16; SPC, 55, 83). The lyric speakers in a string of poems wish to die (“Life is but Losse,” “I die alive,” “What joy to live?” “Lifes death loves life”); and one of them sounds somewhat like Hamlet:

Who would not die to kill all murdring greeves . . . ?
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Who would not wish [to] quit his hart from pangues . . . ?
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Life is a wandring course to doubtfull rest . . . ,
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
  None being sure, what finall fruites to reape.
And who can like in such a life to dwell . . . [?]
If Saules attempt in falling on his blade,
  As lawful were, as ethe to put in ure [i.e., “as easy to carry out”]:
If Sampsons leave, a common law were made,
  Of Abels lot if all that would were sure,
Then cruell death thou should’st the tyrant play,
With none but such as wished for delay.
                                                                                                (“Life is but Losse, 7-30)

It is not only the godless who can feel life so excruciating as to wish the moral freedom to die at will. But this is a transient mood. For Southwell, as for Hamlet, “he that is resolute to spend his bloud, will rather seeke to sell it for the intended prize, then with a fruitlesse effusion Cast it away for noething” (HS, 13). And that effusion must be for a “cause.”

Although the Epistle of Comfort is everywhere about martyrdom, it contains three consecutive chapters in which the ideas in Hamlet’s soliloquy are at issue: “The Nyneth, that death in it selfe to the good, is comfortable. The tenth, that tormentes in a good cause are tolerable. The Eleventh, that Martyrdome is glorious . . .” (A3). The very first pages of this section are rife with Hamlet’s words and occasionally voice his sentiments: “Neyther let us feare to be killed, who by killing are sure to be crowned . . . . willinglye doth the travayler question about his Inne [i.e, his final destination] . . . .Who would not willingly be out of the sway of Fortune, ridd of the infinite hazards and periles, of daylye casualtyes . . . ? out of this daungerous sea (cf. “sea of troubles”)?[59] “Death is looked for. . . , desired with delight accepted with devotion” (112r-v) (“cf. “a consummation devoutly to be wished”). Southwell speaks of the “ende of lyfe [as] the conclusion of . . . being” (true only for beasts) and of death as, for the wicked, the “beginning of damnation”; of death-in-life as “a sleepe fedd...with...dreames” (113v) (“To die, to sleep-- / No more... / To sleep, perchance to dream”). One can in fact construct most of the soliloquy from the vocabulary of Southwell’s chapters, adding to the expressions already noted: “whether,” “noblest,” “mynde,” “suffered,” “Golias . . . Davids . . . stone” (cf. “slings”) “arrowe,” “outrage,” “Fortune,” “arme us,” “oppose,” “ende,” “dye,” “sleepe,” “no more,” “hartes . . . agonyes,” “thousandes,” “natural,” “fleshe,” “inheritance,” “devoutlye,” “wishe,” “peradventure,” “dreame,” “shake . . . of[f],” “mortal,” “respectes,” “calamities . . . lyfe,” “long . . . lyfe,” “beare,” “whippes,” “oppresseth,” “pryde,” “contumeliam,” “panges,” “despised,” “love,” “unlawfull,” “delay,” “officer,” “spurninges,” “patience,” “merite,” “not worthy,” “quitt” [i.e., “quittance”; so “quietus”], “Lucretia[‘s] . . . knife (cf. “bodkin”), burden (cf. “fardels”), “sweate,” “wearyed . . . lyfe,” “discovered,” “countrye” [i.e., heaven], “returned,” “amazed” (cf. “puzzles”), “willes,” “evill,” “flyeth,” “know not,” “conscience . . . cowardice,” “all men,” “resolution,” “sicknesse,” “casteth [in the mind],” “thought,” “enterprise,” “regarde,” “turn,” “lose,” “name,” “action,” “softe,” “fayre.”[60]

From Southwell’s poems Shakespeare might also have recalled “a rub” (SPC, 617), “fardle” (“Josephs Amazement,” 21), “the scorne of time” (SPC, 28), “native hew” (SPC, 369). (“scorn* of time” and “native hew” appear together only in Southwell and Shakespeare [Chadwyck-Healey]). In the Humble Supplication, objecting to the indignities suffered by his persecuted fellows, Southwell asked rhetorically, “What gentleman could endure the peremptory and insolent imperiousnes” of those who “are still praying upon Catholiques as if they were Common booties[?]” He considered it “impossible for flesh and bloud to disgest the unmerciful usage that they suffer by such persons whose basenes doubleth the Injury of their abuse. . . . [W]ho (if it were not more then the feare of man that withheld them) would not rather die . . . ?” (15) This angry rhetoric seems the inspiration for Hamlet’s lines, “Who would bear . . .  / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes, / When he himself might his quietus make . . . .”[61]

As usual, Shakespeare has pondered Southwell’s words and made substantial use of them but has transfigured their meaning. Hamlet is not eager for a martyr’s death and, though aware of its “nobility,” thinks not at all of its glories. His “cause” is dear to him and he is almost mad to see it prevail; but he feels “cursed” not graced that he was born to make it do so (1.5.188). His fits of desolation do not, like those of Southwell’s Christian soldier, have the certainty of a happy conclusion. Instead of praying for the help he needs for success, he tries to coarsen himself until he might become capable of an act which, even as an enterprise “of great pitch and moment,” is not so utterly compelling as to extinguish all doubts of its rightness. It is not only fear of dying that gives him “pause,” but the suspicion that he lacks the truth that would make his action just and his death, in Southwell’s words, a “return into a most [blessed] country” (TD, 10). If the Ghost is an agent of heaven in calling for revenge, Hamlet is called upon to become both a martyr and a licensed murderer. Southwell had not contemplated so difficult a commission. The Jesuit found his own “to be, or not to be” in the epistle of Paul to the Romans: “sive vivimus, Domino vivimus sive morimur domino morimur, sive vivimus sive morimur Domini sumus. Whether we live, unto our Lord we live: whether we dye, unto our Lord we dye: whether we live or dye, our Lordes we are” (EC, 214r; Rom. 14: 8-9). He repeated these verses at his execution as words of consolation, without a hint of perplexity.[62]

 After Hamlet’s private meditation, he addresses Ophelia: “Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins rememb’red.” When she delivers to him, as her father had demanded, remembrances that Hamlet no longer acknowledges, she senses that the “perfume” of his former “sweet” words is lost: “Take these again,” she says, “for to the noble mind / Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind” (3.1.88-100). The exchange is perhaps written in reminiscence of verses from Saint Peters Complaint, “Nymphes . . . , let your praiers perfume that sweetned place” (589-93) and of an apothegm from Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares: “love is no gift except the giver be given with it” (31v).[63] Hamlet’s wild discourse of marriage and the “nunnery” leads Ophelia to the conclusion that his noble mind is “o’erthrown.” The observant King, however, suspects not “madness” but a dangerous melancholy.[64] He plans to send his nephew to England, while Polonius undertakes more spying.

In the second scene of Act 3 Hamlet instructs the players, springs his trap, frights the King “with false fire,” and is called to visit his mother in her closet. Scattered through this scene are brief echoes of Southwell’s wording. For example, rather close together in the Epistle of Comfort one finds suggestions for Hamlet’s “as just a man / As e’er my conversation cop’d withal” (3.2.54-55; cf. EC, 188r-v: “in every Sayncte, without any of these imperfections, wher-withal they are here coped”; and 190v: “converse”)[65]; and “country matters” (3.2.116) (cf. EC, 188r: “contryes”; 189r: “spirituall matters . . . earthly thinges”). A biblical passage cited elsewhere in the Epistle explains Hamlet’s apparently enigmatic exclamation in response to the Player Queen’s vow that she will never love a second husband: “That’s wormwood!” (3.2.177-81). Southwell quotes Proverbs 5:4: “the last of her pleasures are as bitter as wormwood” (EC, 54r), the woman in question being an adulteress. Hamlet, of course, applies the text elliptically to his mother.[66]

There is the further possibility (though it is difficult to know how far to press the point) that the idea for Hamlet’s play, and therefore of the narrative details of the elder Hamlet’s murder, came to Shakespeare from Southwell--though not through any text. The Murder of Gonzago, as scholars now recognize, is a story based on the historical murder in 1538 of the Duke of Urbino, allegedly at the instigation of his kinsman Luigi Gonzaga. The barber-surgeon who confessed to having poured poison at Gonzaga’s command into the Duke’s ears was executed, Gonzaga’s own guilt never definitively proved. Although the number of parallels between Hamlet’s play and the episode at Urbino is significant,[67] Shakespeare jumbled the facts considerably, giving the murderer’s name to his victim, the name of an earlier duchess (Battista Sforza) to the Duke’s wife, and setting the Italian story in Vienna.[68] It is conceivable that these alterations reflect the usual Shakespearean creativity in handling a source, one which Hamlet called an “extant” story “written in very choice Italian” (3.2.262-63). Such a work of which Shakespeare could have made use, however, has never come to light, in English or Italian. He may have become interested in the incident, however, from whatever source it came to him, as the result of stories told by someone who had lived in Italy, was fluent in Italian, and who knew a Luigi Gonzaga, grandson of the suspected murderer. This Luigi (better known in the English-speaking world as Aloysius) entered the Jesuit novitiate at Rome in November, 1585, when Southwell was prefect of studies at the order’s English College there and several months before Southwell’s departure for England. That a scion and heir of so important a family should renounce his heritage and become a member of the Society of Jesus was a fact of enormous importance in the Rome of Sixtus V, and interest in the young novice was intense.[69] The history of the Gonzagas was surely of concern to the Roman Jesuits, Southwell included, who received him. Did Southwell speak of the Gonzagas in English Catholic circles where Shakespeare might have heard of the family and become especially alert to oral or written anecdotes about them?[70]

As soon as the King learns through Hamlet’s theatricals that his crime is known, he writes a “commission” for his nephew’s death, entrusting it to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who will accompany the Prince to England (3.3.3). And then remarkably, without a thought of the murder he has just planned, he strains to repent for his “fault” that is “past,” the murder of his brother: “O, my offense is rank. . . .” Claudius here follows in the tradition not only of the penitent David, but of the biblical Manasseh, who was the most wicked of the kings of Judah, guilty of the worship of foreign gods, of oppression and murder, and yet famous for his repentance: “When [Manasseh] was in tribulations, he praied to the Lorde his God, and humbled himselfe greatly before the God of his fathers, And prayed unto him: and God was entreated of him, and heard his prayer . . .” (2 Chron. 33:12-13). An apocryphal “Prayer of Manasseh” was composed in or near the first century; it became attached to various editions of the bible through the Renaissance, and was admired by both Catholics and Protestants.[71] Southwell refers to this king, to his sinfulness, prayers, and rehabilitation, in Saint Peters Complaint:

If king Manasses sunke in depth of sinne,
With plaintes and teares recovered grace and crowne:
A worthlesse worme some milde regard may winne. . . .


If even Manasseh can be forgiven, who may not be? Claudius may be, as he himself says: “Try what repentance can. What can it not?” (3.3.65). There is only the slightest hint of the Prayer’s verbal influence on Claudius’s meditation.[72] There is much more of Southwell’s.

The King recognizes his kinship with Cain, that his crime “hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder.” But that is no bar to God’s mercy:


                                    What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?


In the Epistle of Comfort, Southwell mentions or alludes five times to “Abell, that was cruellye murdered,” and warns that God will listen to the “voyce of . . . brothers bloode.” In Saint Peters Complaint he describes “Caines murdring hand imbrude in brothers bloode.” More significant, in the Epistle, again, soon after referring to “Caynes sacryfice” and “Abels bloode,” he quotes the passage from Isaiah to which Claudius looks for consolation: “Esay promiseth that redd and scarlett should become as white as snowe.” The King has a “limed soul . . . struggling to be free.” Southwell resorts to the same proverb, comparing some men to “silly birds [stuck] in the lime-bush, striving [1st ed.] to get away.”[73] Unlike Manasseh’s, of course, Claudius’s soul remains limed, unable to tear itself from the “effects” of his sin: “crown . . . , ambition . . . , and . . . queen.” His interior struggles are in vain:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.


He sounds much like the conflicted sinner in Southwell’s poem, “Mans civill warre”:


My hovering thoughts would flie to heaven
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
But mounting thoughts are hailed downe
  With heavie poise of mortall load. . . .[74]


Hamlet secretly observes Claudius at his prayers, unaware that they are futile. Like David who more than once had an opportunity to kill Saul when the King was unaware of his presence (1 Sam. 24:3-8, 26:7-11), he spares his royal enemy--not, however, as David did out of reverence for “the Lord’s anointed” but, as he says, for the sake of a more ruthless revenge.[75] He would not “take him... / When he is fit and season’d for his passage” (3.3.85-86; cf. “seasoned . . . passages” in Southwell’s “Fortunes Falsehood,” 19-21); this restraint, this mercy, is “physic” that “but prolongs [his] sickly days” (cf. EC, 42v: “Woe unto me that my inhabitance is prolonged”; 48r: physicians).

In this mood of furious vindictiveness Hamlet could still drink hot blood; and in the following scene, passion that will or can no longer be controlled drives him to strike through the arras to kill, not the King who he suspects hides there, but the “rash, intruding fool,” Polonius. Gertrude had called Hamlet to her closet. It is he, however, who commands the situation, at first making little of the murder he has just done then speaking to his mother with the authority of a father or husband, or of a priest shending a penitent. The spiritual admonishment is more fierce than Southwell’s to his parent in the Epistle unto His Father, but Shakespeare (who had already recalled parts of this work earlier in the play) wrote his scene in full awareness of the Jesuit’s model. Southwell composed his letter to reclaim his father from “schism,” a disloyalty to the “mother” church that he compared to adultery (EF, 17-18). Like Hamlet he speaks with the fervor of “affection . . . long smothered and suppressed” (EF, 4), and apologizes for his tone of absolute righteousness, wishing “not to claim any privilege . . . , but to avoid all touch of presumption in advising my elders. . . . He may be a father to the soul that is a son to the body” (EF, 6) (cf. Hamlet’s “Forgive me this my virtue . . .” (3.4.152). “I have studied,” Southwell says, “and practiced these many years spiritual physic, acquainting myself with the beating and temper of every pulse” (EF, 6; cf. “My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time” [3.4.140]). He knows that age should make one ripe for virtue: “You cannot be now inveigled with the passions of youth. . . . For they are now worn out of force by tract of time, or fallen in reproof by trial of their folly” (EF, 12; cf. “You cannot call it love, for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble, / And waits upon the judgment” [3.4.68-70).[76] He urges confession (EF, 10; cf. “Confess yourself to heaven” [3.4.149]) and true conversion: “be mindful of things passed . . . , provident of things to come. . . . repent” (EF, 8; cf. “Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come” [3.4.150]). And he reminds the sinner that if repentance entails suffering, the sinless Christ “suffered the dearest veins of his heart to be lanced” for our salvation (EF, 16; cf. “O Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart in twain” [3.4.156]).”[77] Whereas Southwell’s importunities to his father seem to have had their desired effect (Richard Southwell’s name eventually turned up in a list of Norfolk recusants),[78] Hamlet’s shending of his mother has only an ambiguous success--less certain than what is demonstrated in the league made between mother and son in the First Quarto, which has Gertrude promise Hamlet that she will assist him in his revenge. But this is beside the point of evidence that Shakespeare either received the idea for his scene from Southwell’s Epistle, or, having first conceived the episode, looked to or recalled the work for help in realizing it. The playwright also seems in this scene to have associated Gertrude with the sexual penitent Mary Magdalen, for there are bits of Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares in Hamlet’s speeches:


                                Hamlet  3.4                                                          MMFT
34-65:                                                                      43r:
Leave wringing of your hands . . . And let me         thou wringest thy handes . . . thy heart
wring your heart . . . thou dar’st wag thy                 throbbeth . . . thy tongue complaineth...
tongue . . . thought-sick . . . Have you eyes?           thy thought sorroweth . . . Are thy sharp seeing
                                                                               eies become so weak-sighted . . . ?
70-1:                                                                        20v:
                        what judgment                                 could not make her will stoup to the
Would stoop from this to this?                                knowledge of meaner friendships
89:                                                                           67r:
Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul                    looke into thy soule. . . . Let faith be thy eie[79]


The first three scenes of Act 4 are brief and concerned with the frantic actions of Claudius as he deals with the anticipated public reaction to Polonius’s death. “This vile deed,” he tells Gertrude, “We must with all our majesty and skill / Both countenance and excuse” (4.1.30-32)--it had been much easier simply to hide his own crime. The King commissions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet (who considers them royal “sponges”), to recover the dead man’s body, and to accompany the Prince to England, carrying with them letters that are meant, whether they know it or not, to effect his “present death.” The most memorable words in these scenes are the antic Hamlet’s discourse on worms. Polonius is at supper:

Not where he eats, but where ’a is eaten; a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet; we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots; your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table--that’s the end. . . . A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. . . . [This is nothing] but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.


This passage combines familiar aphorisms about the equality of all at the table of the worm of death[80] with a punning reference to the Diet of Worms, presided over by the Emperor Charles V, at which Luther’s refusal to recant led to his ban and subsequent flight into hiding. Whether or not the play on words is gratuitous shall be considered later. It is sufficient to note at this point that in Southwell’s Epistle of Comfort, on a sequence of pages, are to be found many of the excerpt’s key words and allusions: “Emperour,” “dyet,” “feede,” “wormes,” “bowels” (cf. “guts”), “eaten upp the fleshe,” “fishinge,” “lean[n]es[s]” “progresse,” “Luther,” “Kinges,” and “Politiques.”[81] And Southwell the poet wrote of an eater of worms becoming the eaten:

The wormes my feast shall be,
Where-with my carcasse shall be fed,
Untill they feede on me.
                                                                        (“A Phansie . . . ,” 130-32)


The bellicose Fortinbras appears for a moment in the fourth scene, seeking passage for his troops through Denmark into Poland, to fight there for a plot of ground whereon “the numbers cannot try the cause, / Which is not tomb enough and continent / To hide the slain.” Hamlet understands (as the Second Quarto has it) that thousands of men are marching to their deaths for no cause at all, but like Hotspur he attempts to see in such an event an affair of “honor.”  And God is on the side of the honorable, giving men reason that should lead to action, not fecklessness, when honor demands revenge.

Sure He that made us with such large discourse,
                        . . . gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d. Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event--
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
                        . . . I do not know
Why yet I live to say, “This thing’s to do,”
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender Prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake.

Southwell had described, in terms that Hamlet echoes, a God whose paramount concern for “honor” gave the deity a cause for which, never lacking the means, he would exert his mind and will and strength to revenge injustice.


[God] will never endure so deep an impeachment . . . to pass unrevenged. . . . Do we think God either so impotent that he cannot, so base and sottish that he will not, or so weak-witted that he knoweth not how to wreak himself upon so contemptuous and daring offenders? Will he so neglect and lose his honor, which of all things he claimeth as his chief peculiar (EF, 17)?

But Hamlet is not God, nor is the ambition of Fortinbras--hardly a delicate and tender man-- “divine.” The “examples” to whom Hamlet looks are like breakneck champions whom Southwell condemns:

How often for a poynte of honoure, have we bene readye to chalenge our counterpeere . . . thinking it glorye, to contemne death for a bravery. . . . Why grudgeth man to suffer for hys remedye, that which he grudged not to suffer uppon a vanitye (EC 129r-v)?


That is, for an eggshell. Unlike the soldiers of Christ, as Southwell goes on to underscore the obvious, “Kinges and potentats, never conquere without . . . the miseryes of many mens deaths” (EC, 132v). And those deaths are often in vain. It is true that “in one Chris[t]masse daye [the Church] had “twentye thowsand of her children martyred” (EC, 208r), but not for the “fantasy and trick of fame” that would send “twenty thousand” Norwegian soldiers to their graves (Ham 4.4.60-61). From most moral perspectives, including ultimately from Hamlet’s own, it is fortunate that Hamlet is not Fortinbras, no matter how desperately the Danish prince himself in a moment of exasperation wishes otherwise.[82]

Hamlet concludes his reflections with a resolution: “O from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody” (as though they had not been) “or be nothing worth!” But the “thoughts” of others become the audience’s immediate concern. In the next scene Ophelia’s thoughts have turned into “nothing” (4.5.7) as she sings and speaks words that are meaningful only in their madness--her mind a victim of her lover’s destructive mission. And the thoughts of her brother Laertes, who has returned from France at the head of followers that would have him king, are bloody without any mitigation from conscience:

Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged
Most throughly for my father.


Some critics, mindful of the play’s earlier allusion to the Diet of Worms, have seen in Hamlet’s mind and story something of Martin Luther’s. They would have done well to observe that it is the blustery, rash, and impulsive Laertes who utters the notorious words that the Reformer was supposed to have addressed to Emperor and lords at the Diet: “Hie stehe Ich. Ich kan nicht anders” (“Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise”); it is Laertes who dares damnation, as Luther did in his pamphlet Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist: “I dissent from the damnation of this bull, that I curse it and execrate it”; and it is Laertes who seems ready to take literally Luther’s advice to Melanchthon, “Pecca fortiter” (“Sin for all you are worth”).[83] It should also be noted that many of Laertes’ words in this passage are to be found near Southwell’s references to Luther in the Epistle of Comfort (77r, 78v), where the subject is what the damned suffer in hell and where one reads “conscience” (75v); the “bottomlesse . . . pitt, [the] profound lake” (72r); “dareth” (77r); “damnation” (74r); “poyntes” (77v); “stande” (70r); and “worlde” (77r). Shakespeare also seems to have recalled Mary Magdalen’s ardent love for her Master expressed in a devotion that would dare damnation. Talking like Laertes of “conscience” and “grace” and “revenge,” and seeking to recover the body of a loved one (Christ), the saint declares, “If this be so great a sinne . . . , let others make choise of what titles they will: but for my part, I would refuse to be an Angel, I would not wishe to be Saint. I would . . . be condemned . . . [T]hus stand I . . . (MMFT, 41v-42v). It is beyond understanding how Shakespeare could have fashioned a speech apparently so extemporaneous out of the tangled and heavy freight of historical and literary suggestion. It also matters little that Mary, who is bent on love, shares sentiments with Laertes, who, however much moved by love, inclines to murder; or that the conscience-forswearing Laertes ironically appropriates to himself the metaphor of a “life-rend’ring pelican” (4.5.147), which is often the symbol of Christ, whereas the pious Southwell secularizes the image in writing to his father: “you are not so tied to the straits of a pelican as to revive your issue with murthering yourself” (EF, 19).[84] Such are the wonderfully vagrant ways of the imagination, secular and religious.

With the return of Hamlet to Denmark through the remarkable agency of pirates (4.6), Claudius and Laertes, each for his own purposes, collude to bring Hamlet to his death. Laertes, having none of Hamlet’s ethical hesitancies, would “cut his throat i’ th’ church.” The King politicly agrees that “No place should murther sanctuarize” but proposes a more devious plan that would disguise the true nature of the killing (4.7.126-27; cf. EC 96r: “cutt our throates”; 97v: “Churche”; 99v: “sanctuaries”; and EC, 181v:  cutt his . . . throat; 183v: “in the Churche”). Claudius will sponsor a fencing match, a bit of “play” (4.7.105), in which an “unbated” foil will allow Laertes to run Hamlet through “in a pass of practice.” To increase the chances of success, Laertes determines to smear the point with poison, and Claudius will have in reserve a “chalice . . . whereon but sipping” Hamlet cannot escape his destiny (4.7.136-61). It is impossible to know how much of this strategy, if any of it, was present in the Ur-Hamlet. But Shakespeare did not need that early play to help him conceive the match. Already alert to the relevance of the David story to his drama, he would have been reminded in reading Southwell of the deadly sport (as Southwell conceived it) between soldiers of Abner and Joab, a sufficient precedent for the duel of his own characters:

Joab and Abne[r]s servauntes to shew their Captaynes disporte, entered into so fierce and desperate game, that bloode and woundes was the beginninge, and mutuall murder the end of their pastime (EC, 34r; cf. 2 Sam. 2:14-17).

And the playwright would have found not very far from this passage Southwell’s writing of “a sipp of that bitter chalice” (32r) soon after his having spoken of poisoned drink: “a draught of poyson in a golden cup” (20r); and “[The devil] shrowdeth his bitter poison [in the] sweetnesse . . . of the cupp” (20v). Though the language and imagery of “poison” runs through the play almost from beginning to end, the idea for the twofold strategem, poison and duel, may well have developed from Southwell’s pages.

The insidious resolutions of the would-be executioners are interrupted by the Queen’s report of Ophelia’s drowning. The innocence of the young woman, recalled now, mocks the depravity of the scheming men but at the same time helps almost to legitimize their resentments against the Prince whose brutalities led to her death. And as the play moves quickly into the fifth act, the gravediggers’ hard comic “objectivity” toward the person whose grave they are preparing for burial also reminds one of Hamlet’s cruelty toward her. There is no reason to doubt Hamlet when he declares, “I lov’d Ophelia” (5.1.269); his was not, however, a love that overcame every other consideration. Ophelia’s funeral anticipates Hamlet’s own, but no suggestion is ever made that, like Donne’s lovers, they will be united in death. The clowns in the graveyard dig up skulls that are private and singular, and in their decay become victims of a natural cycle of appetites (erotes) in which Hamlet finds nothing mystical. Yet this occasion, both humorous and bleak, on which Hamlet contemplates mortality, has moments inspired by the devout Southwell, whose sense of ta eschata, the last things, was informed by sober faith.

The first Clown, for instance, defends the nobility of diggers: “There is no ancient gentlemen but gard’ners, ditchers, and grave-makers; they hold up Adam’s profession. . . .A was the first . . .” (5.1.29-33). Southwell too spoke up for the nobility of gardeners (Christ appeared as one to Mary) by appealing to the precedent of Adam: “our first father [,Adam,] was placed in the garden of pleasure, & the first office allotted to him, was to be a Gardner . . . , the first man that ever was...” (MMFT, 46r). When Hamlet realizes the sexton’s punning wit, he tells Horatio, “we must speak by the card [i.e., “compass,” “shipman’s card”], or equivocation will undo us” (5.1.137-8). Shakespeare would have associated the “card” and “equivocation” because Southwell had used the “carde and compasse” as a metaphor more than once in his poems, and because it was at Southwell’s trial that the issue of equivocation (which the Jesuit acknowledged practicing and tried to defend) became an issue in government prosecutions of priests thereafter, until Henry Garnet’s trial after the Gunpowder Plot turned the legal argument into something spectacular.[85] Hamlet’s thoughts on Death the Leveller begin with the noble but ignominious dust of Alexander (5.1.203). Southwell dwells at one time on flesh turned to ashes:

Looke . . . into the graves, sur-vew all the Emperours, Dukes, States, and, Worthyes of former ages, & see who was maister, who man, who riche, or who poore. . . . after lyfe there is no more, difference of persons then there is in the ashes of velvet and course [sic] canvase (EC, 116r).

At another time his words run closer to those of Hamlet, who mused, after handling Yorick’s skull: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust. . . . Imperious Caesar [is] dead and turn’d to clay” (5.1.208-13). In his poem “Upon the Image of death” Southwell’s meditator looks upon a skull, “the hollow place, / Where eies, and nose, had sometimes bin” (7-10; cf. Hamlet’s memory of Yorick: “Here hung those lips” [5.1.188]); and it reminds him of his ancestors “turnd to clay” (31), and of the rulers of old:


Though all the East did quake to heare,
   Of Alexanders dreadful name,
And all the West did likewise feare,
   To heare of Julius Cesars fame,
Yet both by death in dust now lie. . . .

It should be remembered that Hamlet’s “Lady Worm” has kin in Southwell’s Epistle of Comfort (and that in his struggle with Laertes at Ophelia’s grave his daring to “drink up eisel” and “eat a crocadile” is inspired by the same source).[86] The Epistle also disparages painting of the face (176r), which to Hamlet appears sheer futility: let a woman “paint an inch thick,” she must come to the “favor” of a skull (5.1.193-4).[87]

Southwell contributes to the speech of other characters in this scene as well. Laertes excoriates the clergyman who begrudges Ophelia even the “maimed rites” that she has been accorded in “Christian burial”:

Lay her i’ th’ earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A minist’ring angel shall my sister be
When thou liest howling.
                                                                                                (5.1.219, 25, 238-42)


The same kind of challenge had been offered by Southwell to martyr-makers:


The scattered bones of these that have in [God’s] cause have suffered, which are now thoughte unworthye of Christian burial, [shall be] shrined in gold; when the prophane carcases of hereticks . . . shalbe esteemed more worthy of . . . disgrace, & farr more unworthy of such funerall solemnyties (EC, 212v-13r; and cf. 195r: “when the seedes of eternity springe so high in his only duste”).[88]

Ophelia before her death was the “rose of May,” afterwards, tragically, a dispenser of pansies, columbines, daisies, and violets. Then on a tree above a brook, “on the pendant boughs her crownet weeds / Clambring to hang,” she fell and drowned amid “fantastic garlands.” “Virgin crants” bedecked her bier; and on her grave Gertrude strewed flowers with the blessing, “Sweets to the sweet”--words reminiscent of Southwell’s characterization of Christ (the flower of the tree of Jesse) as he returned from Egypt to Nazareth (the name of the town thought to mean a flower):

Flowre to a flowre he fitly doth retire.
For flower he is and in a flower bred,
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Young flower, with flowers, in flower well may he be
Ripe fruit he must with thornes hang on a tree.”[89]


The “iconography of Ophelia,” then, seems based on images that pertain to Christ as well as to the goddess Flora and the Virgin Mary.[90]

The play’s penultimate scene ends with the King’s urging Laertes to join with him in putting “the matter to the present push” (5.1.295).  Both men are excited by the excellence of their contrivance and are certain of its success.[91] The final scene, however, begins with Hamlet’s assuring Horatio that human devices are ultimately irrelevant to our “ends,” which “a divinity” will shape, “rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.10-11). Hamlet professes to have learned about transcendent purposes through his experience of indiscretions and accidents: in his impulsive search for the King’s commission that would have destroyed him, and in his apparently fortuitous rescue by pirates. And although he relishes his own tactic that will successfully destroy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the play’s earlier tragedies and its indiscriminately tragic finale, filled with “purposes mistook” and inventions “Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads” (384-85), seem to vindicate a derision of  “plots.” Where plans of action “pall” and events as well as persons “defy augury,” how will great enterprises be served (5.2.9, 395, 219)? Is it better after all to suffer than to take arms? To fall acquiescently into the hands of “providence”? Or is “readiness,” an active alertness to seize the opportunities for great enterprises that heaven gives, a third alternative? “The readiness,” Hamlet avers, “is all.” It is clear from its context, however, that this line bespeaks an attitude more fatalistic than ambitious. One must be ready not for achievement but for death:


There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come--the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t to leave betimes, let be. (219-24).

These ideas are hardly original. Southwell had treated them as perennial wisdom, and in language that Hamlet shares. To the Jesuit priest, as has been pointed out, Jesus’s words on the fall of the sparrow were of special moment.[92] But he insisted too that the Christian as well as his God must be “provident” (EC, 119r)--in facing mortality:

If . . . we wilbe out of all feare of death, lett us continually remember it. If we use our horse to the race before we runne for the wager; If we acquaint our selves with the weapons before we fighte for the victorye [cf. Claudius’s wager of Barbary horses (5.2.147-48) and his confidence that Hamlet will not “peruse the foils” before the fencing match (4.7.136)]; Much more sholde we take heede, that we come not dispourveyed to this laste combat. . . . We are sure [to die], though how or when we know not . . . . Death [is to be] prepared for [to avoid] the terrour of that which is to come. [Those] readye to dye . . . feare not death. . . . If I should never die, Wel. But if ever why not now (EC, 119r-121v)? [It is] when we leave livinge [that we] leave dyinge (EC, 117v).


When Southwell spoke earlier of a “readiness to al” (EC, 90v), however, it was a readiness for action, a disposition to works of mercy and charity; and his celebration of life after death is much more than Hamlet can reach to. Hamlet thinks of readiness for the critical moment when one simply “leaves.” He sounds merely resigned. But as elsewhere in the play his words can not be trusted as a permanent index to his thoughts, which are forever provisional and changing. His final moments alive are filled with passionate action. He does “take arms” before being “overcome.”

As he dies, he imagines death as a “fell sergeant” approaching him, “strict in his arrest” (5.2.336-37). The figure has a long history.[93] Southwell used it in the discussion of death just cited: “death is . . . Gods officer to summon before him, whom he meaneth to call” (EC, 121v). The image of a prisoner being taken into custody is countered by Horatio, who prays that flights of angels might sing Hamlet to his rest as a noble soul being escorted into his kingdom (5.2.360). That the conceits do not nullify one another is evident from Southwell’s entertaining both of them. He too (as he would naturally do, mindful of his requiem liturgy, in which a “Chorus angelorum” is asked to conduct the released soul “in paradisum”) believes in the angels’ role in the saved soul’s final journey; he hopes for his father that “the angelical powers . . . will be patrons unto [him] in [his] final passage,” which is a retirement “to a Christian rest”--those angels whom he calls the “birds of heaven [that] sing” (EF, 7, 20, 19). Hamlet himself at the very end is not concerned about music or rest but about politics; not with his place among the elect but with Denmark’s “election”: “Fortinbras . . . has my dying voice.”  The “rest” about which he speaks is what remains to be said but cannot be: “the rest is silence” (5.2.355-58). Do his last words mean something more, suggesting in the man who has seen a ghost and has just spoken of “Heaven,” its tribunal, and summoning officer, who has in forgiveness of his murderer prayed that Laertes be absolved by heaven’s court (5.2.332-36), a final instinctive belief in the silence of personal extinction? It is unlikely, though as usual Shakespeare provides no certainty. What is certain is that he read at the very end of Southwell’s Epistle of Comfort, whose purpose was to teach martyrs how to die, a passage from the thirtieth chapter of Isaiah: “In silentio & spe, erit fortitudo vestra. In silence & hope shalbe your strength.”[94]




The presence in Hamlet of so much of Southwell’s writing demonstrates that the Jesuit continued to provide Shakespeare with the subjects and the language of many of his deepest thoughts, but that frequently what is offered in the Catholic source as simple yet momentous, and infallibly true and holy, is subjected in the poet’s fictions to complex and daunting questioning. It is important to see, however, that in the play challenges come from within the system of faith, from doubts and protests that would arise in believers, not primarily from without. That is why one must recognize, as has been earlier suggested, that the “world” of Hamlet is a Catholic one.

Many commentators have resisted this fact, either assuming that “Shakespeare’s Denmark . . . was Elizabethan England,” and therefore Protestant, or at least arguing that Hamlet’s attendance at Wittenberg, “Luther’s university,” must mean that the Prince himself was a Protestant.[95] The assumption is questionable, and the argument ill-founded. One might as well say that since Caesar’s Rome or Juliet’s Verona are in some sense “Elizabethan England” they must be “Protestant.” Shakespeare knew how to make fundamental distinctions. As for Wittenberg’s Lutheran connotations, one can acknowledge that the playwright wished his audience to be aware of them when they saw the drama unfold--but only as bringing to mind a doctrine contemporary with themselves, not with the characters in the play. The pun on the Diet of Worms and Laertes’ “To this point I stand” were the playwright’s allusions, not intended as such by the characters who spoke them. Wittenberg had a university before Luther joined its faculty (it was founded in 1502), and Shakespeare may even have been unaware that its establishment had been so recent, so that his making Hamlet and Horatio students there would not prove that they were Protestants. Despite its chronological confusions, it seems that Hamlet is meant to be viewed as set in an age before the playwright’s own, when England was “tributary” to Denmark (5.2.39). And this Denmark, it is clear from the play itself, is Catholic.

Such was the conviction of those who put together Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Punished), a “degenerate” version of Hamlet that probably derived from an early seventeenth-century script taken to Germany by touring actors.[96] They gave the sentries Catholic ejaculations (“Miserere Domine. . . . Ach heiliger Anton von Padua stehe mir bey” [“Have mercy on me, O Lord. . . . O Saint Anthony of Padua, defend me!”]) and a belief in “purgatory” (“Fegfeuer”). They provided the murderous King with a Catholic resolution to placate God with good works: “Nun will ich hingehen, und mit Fasten und Allmosen, wie auch durch inbrünstiges Gebet, dem Höchsten versöhnen” (“Now will I go, and with fastings, and alms, and fervent prayers appease the Highest”). They presented the Queen’s otherwise incestuous marriage to her brother-in-law as lawful (even though her love was sinful), providing a Catholic explanation for its legitimacy: “Hätte mir der Pabst solche Ehe nicht erlaubt: so wäre es auch nimmer geschehen” (“If the pope had not allowed the marriage, it would never have taken place”).[97] The Brudermord is laughable in many respects, but these extrapolations from Shakespeare’s play are hardly without warrant. The German work contains Hamlet’s directive to Ophelia to “go to a nunnery” (“gehe nur fort nach dem Kloster”), to a genuine Catholic convent, not to a brothel (sometimes called a “nunnery”) “where two pairs of slippers lie at the bedside” (“aber nicht nach einem Kloster wo zwey Paar Pantoffeln vor dem Bette stehen”).[98] There were none of the former establishments in “Elizabethan England.” Many other Catholic institutions, beliefs, and practices had of course disappeared from Shakespeare’s country but were to be found in Shakespeare’s Denmark.

Just before the dumb show, Hamlet exclaims with heated irony about the now general disregard of his late father:

O heavens, die two months ago, and not forgotten yet? Then there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year, but, by’r lady, ’a must build churches then, or else shall ’a suffer not thinking on, with the hobby-horse, whose epitaph is, “For O, for O, the hobby-horse is forgot” (3.2.130-35).

The “hobby-horse” was a feature of the country May-games once associated with the Virgin Mary--hence Hamlet’s oath, “by’r lady.” The costume-horse seems to have fallen victim to puritanical repression (here Shakespeare does write of his own country’s time and customs). Another Catholic tradition proscribed by Protestantism, however, is still viable in Denmark: the building of chantries (“churches,” in some cases) to insure that founders or beneficiaries would continue to be remembered by religious employed to say masses and prayers for them. Shakespeare reports in another play that Henry V constructed two of these in England, sponsoring intercession for the soul of the late King Richard (H5 4.1.300-302). And there are other Catholic prayers in Elsinore: Hamlet’s appeal to “angels and ministers of grace,” for example (1.4.39; cf. Southwell’s “angels and saints,” EF, 17). Only Catholics would pray to saints as “ministers of grace,” for Protestants believed that God alone dispensed it. Even Claudius’s call for help to angels (3.3.69) would seem rank papistry to many of the Reformed: “it appeareth nowhere in the word of God,” stated Alexander Nowell in his Catechism (1570), “that God would have us pray to angels, or to godly men deceased.”[99] Ophelia’s “orisons” are sought by Hamlet to help in the forgiveness of his “sins” (3.1.88-89), surely a request upon which Luther would have frowned. And the drowning girl’s “old lauds” (4.7.177) are from the canonical hours of the Roman breviary.[100]

The most conspicuous evidence of the Catholicism of Denmark, however, lies in the character of the Ghost of Hamlet’s “father,” and in the responses to it. The apparition professes to come from purgatory (1.5.10-13), where, having been deprived of the Catholic sacraments at his death (“Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d” [1.5.77]), he suffers torments unspeakable. There is no ambiguity in the Ghost’s self-presentation: he is a Catholic who is confined, except for the time of his nocturnal wandering, in the “prisonhouse” which Protestants believed did not exist. Dover Wilson once called him “the only non-Protestant in the play,”[101] but this idea is surely untenable. If the younger Hamlet were a Protestant, as so many have maintained, he would either recognize the spectre as a lying fiend, come from hell (for there was no other underworld) to abuse and damn him (2.2.603) or he would have to renounce his creed (in an act to which he seems in no way tempted). It would indeed have been pointless in the first place for a devil to assume a persona that an intended Protestant victim could so easily penetrate. Hamlet’s instinctive response to his vision is to consider the Ghost “honest” (1.5.138), although he is aware that it may not be a “spirit of health” but a “goblin damn’d” (1.4.40). Since the Ghost is so specific about his purgatorial dwelling, these alternatives can be only those that a Catholic would entertain. Framing them as he does, Hamlet displays religious assumptions consistent with his other Catholic attitudes throughout the play, which are manifested in his Catholic prayers and talk about their efficacy, his ingenuous allusion to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory (1.5.136), his belief in his father’s “heavy” purgative sufferings--of which one cannot make a precise “audit” (3.3.80-84), and his sense of the importance of “shriving” (or Catholic confession), which Claudius had made impossible for his father, and Hamlet denies to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (5.2.47). Horatio, too, another Wittenberg scholar, lacks Lutheran convictions. At first he is entirely skeptical about ghosts but is forced to acknowledge what his senses convey to him. He believes even before Hamlet does in the possibility that the Ghost may be an authentic purgatorial soul. When Horatio encounters the spirit he asks “If there be any good thing to be done / That may do thee ease, and grace to me” (1.2.130-31). Only Catholics believed that the dead, in purgatory’s halfway-house, might be “eased” by good works of the faithful on earth, and that the living might enjoy “grace” through the intercession of angels or the faithful departed. Horatio considers other possibilities (1.2. 133-39) but none that is strictly Protestant (1.2.47).

The Catholic world of the play would have made it easy for its Protestant audience to assume that the “rottenness” of Denmark was in part a rotten faith. But as this study has attempted to demonstrate, Shakespeare often had more than a single audience in mind. The spectators (and the Protestant censors) who “knew” that the Ghost was evil from the moment he identified himself as a soul from purgatory and who assumed that Hamlet’s acquiescence to him was utter sin might, like some modern commentators, have rested content in the simplicity of their truth. Others of more flexible convictions might not have felt it necessary to go beyond an advanced agnosticism in their responses. Sectarian issues need not have complicated their appreciation of the drama’s brilliance as tragic entertainment and exploration. For Catholics, crypto-Catholics, and others (like the earl of Southampton?) still open to the premises of the Old Faith, however, Hamlet offered the most formidable of challenges. It was they who could most completely identify the hero’s dilemmas and agonies as their own. For them as for Hamlet the Ghost could truly be the spirit of the Prince’s father, allowed by God out of purgatory to bring an injunction expressing the will of heaven concerning an iniquitous ruler virtually beyond the reach of human law. Revenge was the Lord’s indeed (Deuteronomy 32.35; Romans 12.19); yet it was not unthinkable that Hamlet could be the agent of that retributive justice, exempted from the commandment against murder by the divine author of commandments, who as the Lord of Hosts destroyed the wicked not just through flood, fire, famine, and plague, but through “scourges” and “ministers” (Hamlet 3.4.175), human agents both wicked (Nebuchadnezzar) and good (Judith). This is the God who through Moses ordered the Israelites to kill the worshipers of the golden calf; who directed Saul, through Samuel, to slay all of the Amalekites, and who reprimanded him through the prophet for sparing one of them.[102] In the post-biblical era such a commission would be extraordinary, and the most credulous Catholic would be obligated to suspect and test the spirit that delivered it. But the most skeptical Catholic would be bound to consider that a ghost claiming to come from purgatory and urging a death sentence on a king might be “honest” and, despite the horror of its message, an emissary to be heeded.[103]

Hamlet’s attempt at the “discernment of spirits” does not follow the often absurd rules laid down in sixteenth-century handbooks of ghost lore so dear to modern scholars.[104] Instead, he seeks to answer only two momentous questions: is the Ghost (which, appearing to so many, cannot be an illusion) telling the truth, and is its call for revenge in accord with “conscience”? Hamlet is not able to find, as some critics are, certain evidence of the spirit’s fiendish character in what it says. The Prince would not deem the revenge it demands diabolical if God were its ultimate sponsor. As for the Ghost’s supposed peevishness, vanity, and lack of charity, traits difficult for some to imagine in one who is if not in heaven yet “saved,”[105] Hamlet seems unaware of them; either his idea of imperfection differs from that of the reproachful moralists or he does not expect a soul still being reformed in the underworld to have achieved perfect righteousness.[106] On the other hand, Hamlet cannot be sure, even after the “Mouse-trap” has persuaded him of the Ghost’s veracity, that the Ghost speaks with divine authority, for the devil can use the truth for his own sinister purposes. Hamlet must know whether the truth serves the good, which the devil either by lies or by truth-telling would never promote. The killing of Claudius would be “good” if God ordered it; but since the Ghost is not self-authenticating as an agent of the Divine, he is no sure guide to the divine purpose, and Hamlet can never surrender to him his conscience. Unless, then, Hamlet can answer both of his questions, each of them on its own terms, he must remain in uncertainties.

After seeing Claudius’s response to “The Murther of Gonzago,” Hamlet never doubts the word of the Ghost, which he was all too ready to believe even before he tested it. It is much more difficult for him to settle the matter of conscience. He had been impatient to act even before either of his questions had been answered, worried that “conscience does make cowards of us all.” And after he gains half of the knowledge he needs, in a mood of unholy fury, he shows himself for a time a moral reprobate in his hellish desire for the King’s damnation, then kills Polonius in an act so impulsive that it seems not to come from himself (his explanation later to Laertes that he was “not himself” when he did the deed is not entirely specious casuistry [5.2.235]). Now a homicide, he considers himself punished by heaven, as though he had been destined to be its culpable “scourge” even as he served its will as “minister”:

I do repent; but heaven hath pleas’d it so
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.


Must Hamlet repent for what he thinks is heaven’s will, or for a rash act which violated that will? For what is he punished? If he is both scourge and minister, is he simply a villain of whom God makes convenient use? There is no moral clarity in Hamlet’s words. Later he will maintain that “Excitements of . . . reason” as well as of “blood” urge him to his task (4.4.58-59)--though in this context he reasons about the demands of “honor,” which are not those of conscience; and he is vague about the “wisdom” that should compel him to act but seems to be overwhelmed in his thought by cowardice. Perhaps, he feels, one should not think “too precisely” (4.4.58-59, 41-43). It is not until the final scene that Hamlet suggests, to Horatio, that he can without scruple kill the king:


Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon--
He that hath kill’d my king and whor’d my mother,
Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such coz’nage--is’t not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damn’d
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?


These moral justifications, however, are offered in questions which seem only semi-rhetorical. “Perfect conscience” is required; “is’t not” what he has? He would like reassurance, but Horatio gives no answer, turning instead to the compelling fact that the King will soon know the “issue of the business” in England and will be hotter than ever for his nephew’s destruction.

What finally does Hamlet have as he moves into the brief “interim” (5.2.72) between his return to England and his certain death? A firm conviction of the Ghost’s truth, a more tentative belief in the rightness of his commission to kill the King (a belief founded on simple and primarily intuitive conscience, not on scholastic theories about the legitimacy of tyrannicide), and a new-found trust in a “providence” that will have its way either through or in spite of human strategy and striving. If “heaven” was “ordinant” (5.2.48) in saving him for a final confrontation with Claudius, it must all along have brought things to the final pass in which Hamlet must still learn--he still cannot decide for himself--what exactly must be done. These attitudes are not a mark of the tainted mind that the Ghost had charged Hamlet to avoid and that the Prince had not always managed to escape (1.5.85). They help to save him as a hero “noble in the mind,” even as, responding with spontaneous and (few would deny) righteous anger to the treachery of Laertes and the King, he does his final bloody work.

But Shakespeare’s Catholic audience were interested in more than Hamlet’s mind; they were concerned about the large ethical and religious issues which his case had ultimately failed to resolve. What the playwright told them about these matters of consequence might best be understood by comparing Hamlet with its revenge-play predecessor, Titus Andronicus.

The dramaturgic and thematic parallels between the two works have often been remarked upon, but their differences are at least as noteworthy. Although one can see beyond and through it, the world of Titus is in itself a small one. Its characters are schematized, of relatively simple psychology, easily seen to be representative of ideas which have a drastic sharpness, and which are at play in an arena that is strictly ethical. Its Romans call upon the gods and take into account the attitudes of heaven and hell towards revenge. Gods and shades, however, are silent in this play; there are no supernatural irruptions into it, as there are even in the highly “rational” Julius Caesar, no faces or voices from beyond to complicate political or personal life and give it direction, no paradoxical possibility that the gods might contravene their own laws to achieve justice. The conscience of its titular avenger is sensitive but elementary, not always perspicacious, melting away in the face of perplexities and finally relying on a primitive code of retaliation to take the place of complex moral law. Titus is a play of martyrs who are victims; and martyr-making is unconscionable: one needs only a natural ethical sense to understand this, even though religion, or rather religious politics, lies not far beneath the antique Roman veneer. A formidable play in its own right, it can yet be said to have a “message” or satirical “point.” In Hamlet, one need hardly say, the world is recognizably much larger and more complex, its realism far beyond the compass of allegory. Hamlet is, like Titus, somewhat schizoid in its chronology, but in tone it is decidedly modern, featuring a court and characters that might be found in the Christian Europe of Shakespeare’s own day. Titus’s ancient city, however, had no ghosts, only mortals moving, lusting, killing, agonizing, and dying--looking with limited options for the light of a cruel meaning in a dim, proto-Hobbesian world. Its old ambience thus had modern problems with scaled-down, modern approaches to solving them. Hamlet’s Elsinore, on the other hand, up-to-date in its setting and manners, rich almost to excess with the details of contemporary European life, includes within itself the lush enigmas of ancient as well as contemporary thought. No question is out of order there; if the most skeptical notions may thrive in its palace and graveyard, no barriers of new religion or philosophy can keep out a ghost and St. Patrick’s fire. Hamlet’s psychology might be a case study for Freudian or post-Freudian analysts; his moral dilemmas are those of the medieval dévot, the Renaissance man of honor, and the political philosophers of either age. The dry ethical atmosphere of Titus has yielded in Hamlet to the moist religious air through which a spirit may stalk to sit upon a conscience, pressuring it to take unfamiliar and terrible paths. And providence, only vaguely present in Titus as a remote power to pray to in distress (4.1.129), and giving no discernible sign of a response, becomes in Hamlet’s mind the secret power determining every survival and “fall.” The martyr in Hamlet is not the passive sufferer, the victim of barbaric religious or irreligious power, but the Prince in arms, who seeks justice with a sword and is overcome in conflict; his martyrdom has the blessing of heaven--if it does not evoke scornful laughter in hell.

Shakespeare’s English Catholics are thus brought by Hamlet, as the Ghost led the Prince, to “the very summit of the cliff / That beetles o’er his base into the sea” (1.4.70-71)--the sea of their faith which rose to astonishing heights to touch their earthbound lives with crisis. They hear of Wittenberg, where that crisis began, and are reminded of Luther, the apostate monk who provoked it; but the place and the man have not yet made their mark on the world of the play: a ghost may still claim to be from purgatory and be welcomed by a student from the University. It is a ghost in which Hamlet’s fellow Catholics may believe along with him, but whose origins they are also required to doubt. The spirit speaks with nostalgia, perhaps like their nostalgia, for sacraments that Elizabethans have been denied. He claims that ambition and lust have made a brother a murderer to gain crown and queen; thus he vilifies a king, Claudius, in whom some may have wished to see faint images of Henry VIII: a sensualist, once married “incestuously” to his brother’s widow (by leave of the pope, as the Brudermord says Hamlet’s uncle had been), wife-killer, and poisoner of the Old Faith in England.

There may have been those in a Catholic audience who, with no concern to find a continuous allegory in the play, shared the Ghost’s exasperation with and sympathy for the adulterous Gertrude, for she could have reminded them (as she has reminded modern scholars)[107] of Mary Queen of Scots. This sad monarch, much like the “wretched queen” to whom Hamlet finally bids “adieu” (5.2.333), married the murderer of her husband three months after the assassination and violated the proprieties of mourning by holding a wedding feast for one of her attendants on the day after the killing. Her enemy George Buchanan publicly condemned the haste of the new royal couple in language that Hamlet echoes: they are “coupled . . . in such posting speed, as they might scant have hasted to furnish any triumph of some noble victory” (cf. Hamlet’s “O most wicked speed: to post / . . . to incestious sheets,” “furnish forth the marriage tables”).[108] It is not impossible that Mary’s final maneuverings as Elizabeth’s prisoner, when she corresponded with those involved in the Babington conspiracy, are alluded to in Hamlet’s cryptic lines:

For who that’s but a queen, fair, sober, wise,
Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib,
Such dear concernings hide?

“Gib,” a tom-cat, is a nickname for “Gilbert.” It was, as Southwell wrote with disgust in his Humble Supplication, through the hands of Gilbert Gifford, confederate with Robert Poley as a government spy, that all of Mary’s secret correspondence passed and made its way into Walsingham’s files. It was in Mary’s letters to Anthony Babington (“bat”?) that she incriminated herself in the plot against Elizabeth’s life. Charles Paget (“paddock”?), a member of her inner circle--but suspected by Jesuits of disloyalty to her and now believed to have been a spy for Walsingham--was probably involved in betraying her.[109] Mary had been so much the embodiment and destroyer of Catholics’ hopes for England that the details of her tragedy, including the “dear concernings” which she committed to those who would fail her, would not have evaporated in their memories more than a decade after its conclusion, when Shakespeare would allude to them in Hamlet.  Resounding through the tragedy of Mary Stuart was the cry for revenge--or, in the dying words of her secretary David Rizzio, pulled from her skirts and stabbed not far from his mistress in Holyrood House, “Giustizia, giustizia!” It was justice that seemed to demand the death of Darnley, the death of Bothwell, and (perhaps in the mind of many) the death of the Queen of Scots herself.[110]

The righting of personal wrong, however, although an obsession for Hamlet as it had been for his predecessor Titus, would have been finally of less importance to Hamlet’s Catholic audience than the question of a larger justice which the play so powerfully raises. The persecutions inflicted by a government which answered to no human authority had driven some few Catholics to thoughts of murderous retribution against Queen Elizabeth. Anthony Babington’s conspiracy was only one of several plots in which bloody imaginings came close to being converted into reality. Not a plotter but a “despairing” Catholic,” John Somerville, a Warwickshire kinsman of the Ardens and thus of Shakespeare, was in 1583 apprehended on the road to London shouting that he “meant to shoot [Elizabeth] through with his dag.”[111] The impulse to avenge “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely . . . , / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes” was, however, most often suppressed. Southwell’s cousin Anthony Copley, in whose poem A Fig for Fortune (1596) Eleanor Prosser has found many parallels with Hamlet, condemned a ghost that urged revenge, counselling instead that the aggrieved take religious comfort in their crucifixion with Christ.[112] Southwell himself, as has been shown in the discussion of Titus, preached to the oppressed forgiveness while warning oppressors of the sanctified vengeance that awaited them. Endurance, most Catholics believed, was nobler in the mind than taking arms; but the more thoughtful among them tried to understand their resignation as part of the comprehensive designs of divine providence, and their submission to providence, when they did submit, might be less than pious and unquestioning. The Catholic conspirators who joined with Essex and Southampton to overthrow the government of Elizabeth could not wait for heaven’s slow and invisible hand.

Among priests and recusants there was a tendency to think of England as Jerusalem and their Protestant overlords as the Babylonian despoilers who in the time of Jeremiah overcame the holy city in fulfillment of the Lord’s intention. Donne gave voice to this view in translating his Lamentations of Jeremy:


   Like to a garden hedge [God] hath cast downe
    The place where was his congregation,
And Sions feasts and sabbaths are forgot;
    Her King, her Priest, his wrath regardeth not.
    The Lord forsakes his Altar, and detests
    His Sancutary, and in the foes hand rests
His Palace, and the walls, in which their cries
    Are heard, as in the true solemnities.

Like the people of Judah, English Catholics had desperately to seek some explanation for their radically harsh treatment by a God whose truth they must suffer to uphold. They needed a theodicy, like the Lamentations, which would assert eternal providence and justify God’s ways to themselves and to his community at large. And having found the inevitable answer to troubling questions in a dutiful acquiescence to a providence that must remain mysterious, they could yet feel that the answers provided by religious faith had failed to unperplex their minds. This is why, one senses, the still Catholic Donne would turn the final declaration of the Lamentations into a challenging interrogative. Whereas “Jeremiah” had found good reason for God’s temporary rejection of his people: “O Lorde . . . thou hast utterly rejected us: thou art exceeding angrie against us” (5:22), the layman’s translation reads:

For oughtest thou, O Lord, despise us thus,
And to be utterly enrag’d at us?


Hamlet’s final acknowledgment in the play of “a divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2.10) and his apparent confidence in the “special providence” that sees and determines the “fall of a sparrow” (5.2.219-20) would thus be of immense significance to Catholics who had come in their religious and political troubles to the same kind of reliance on transcendent and mysterious purposes. Yet however much Hamlet was consoled and liberated by these thoughts (even as fatalism tinged his consolation, and “divinity” constricted the arena of his freedom) his drama contained no special revelations to lighten the burden of the mystery. A ghost may appear in the night, perhaps sent by God to disclose a secret murder and demand revenge for it. This justice may cleanse a kingdom’s ruling class to its botchy core. But the spirit gives orders without guidance about how they are to be carried out, requires purity of conscience without making plain how to avoid contamination. The task of God’s minister (or scourge? and scourge?) is more complicated than simplified by supernatural interference, and is never entirely removed from doubts about its legitimacy until the “chosen” one must act extempore, without a plan or time for scruple. St. Paul had told the Galatians that even an “angel of God” might be disbelieved (1:8);[114] why may not a lesser spirit, who in Hamlet is never proved to be either an envoy from heaven or from hell?

 If providence shapes ends, it also shapes beginnings and interims; it is involved in the fall of every sparrow: the old king, Polonius, Ophelia, the pensioners, as well as of Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet himself--all of their deaths the result in some way of human acts for which heaven, one might think, would not in every case wish to hold itself directly responsible. In the end the kingdom has been taken not only from a smiling villain, but from a philosopher-prince, one who before his deep melancholy and fierce confusions had been “the expectation and rose of the fair state” (3.1.152); taken and given to a one-dimensional leader of “lawless resolutes” whose main goal in life is the honor to be gained in fighting for an eggshell.

Like all the rest of Shakespeare’s characters who appeal to the directing force of providence, from the politically confident soldiers and clerics of the history plays to the uncomprehending sufferers in King Lear to the beneficiaries of mysterious grace in the romances, Hamlet in his pronouncements expresses only his own opinion, which by any number of arguments may be confirmed, refuted, or judged beyond the competence of logic. One can admire the playwright’s integrity in presenting this full range of hypotheses. It would be wrong, however, to see in his refusal to solve the insoluble the condescending scorn of the skeptic towards those benighted in faith or philosophical certitude.[115] Only the doctrinaire (and thus hardly Shakespeare) will fail to appreciate Hamlet’s need, within the religious system that he never abandons, to find in providence the answer to questions that harrow his conscience and drive him to the brink of madness. Once he has conversed with the Ghost from another world, no pyrrhonism can save him from the necessity of following religious “facts” to their conclusions. There is potentially enough scandal to a “merely” human sense of justice in these conclusions that the Catholic audience, those closest to Hamlet’s own position, could hardly look to the play for models of endurance or action. Not even a ghost that seemed to be sent by heaven could fully assure Hamlet that heaven would or should or should not bless the fully pre-meditated shedding of blood by an avenger, much less condone the “accidental judgments” and “casual slaughters” associated with his quest (5.2.382). Hamlet had to live with questions (“Is’t not perfect conscience . . . ?”) until they became for him irrelevant. The play provides no sense at its end that an audience could have knowledge more privileged than his.

The Prince stood outside “The Murder of Gonzago” in order to explain, or over-explain, its significance. Like Hamlet itself, it is a story extant and altered to touch conscience to its quick. But Shakespeare, although an adapter, is primarily a “player,” not the voice of authority; he has changed an old saga by adding many more than “some dozen . . . or sixteen lines” (2.2.541-42) that are inspired by a heterogeneous collection of sources, few more important to the play than the works of Robert Southwell. Having created no interpreter of his drama, Shakespeare has permitted as many interpretations as it will bear, from those in which it is “good Protestant propaganda” to those in which it subverts all Christian orthodoxy. The player-playwright stages and performs, then stands aside in “silence.” Catholics who would have been as glad to read Southwell as to see Hamlet would also know what they would know, which may have been less than the Jesuit thought he knew, but not much more or less than does the play’s hero.

The Catholics who joined the earls of Essex and Southampton in the abortive rebellion against the Queen’s government in 1601 may or may not have possessed the exquisite consciences to which Hamlet could appeal. It is certain, however, that Sir Christopher Blount, and no doubt others, had been promised “toleration of religion” by Essex “if he came to authority.”[116] In their minds, religion seemed to justify violent responses to tyranny. Although confused and tentative in determining a course of action, they did not need a ghost from purgatory to demand from them the shedding of blood. Blount took the lead in a charge at Ludgate that produced several casualties and left him seriously wounded.[117] At their trial (which, of course, was hardly a forum at which to learn their true thoughts), both Essex and Southampton protested that they had intended no bloodshed, had planned to seize the Court only as a means of approaching the Queen in order to obtain her protection from enemies (Ralegh, Cobham, and Lord Grey) who had been planning their murder. Southampton even pleaded ignorance of “the law.” The prosecutors in making their case tried strenuously to put “papistry” at the root of the uprising; and just as strenuously the earls denied any ideological contamination. Southampton was content to “have adventured his life,” but “only for the love” he bore Essex, not for a treasonous principle. The defendants insisted that if a political motive drove their actions, it was pragmatic and benign. They wished to force their way into the presence of the Queen, Southampton confessed, but only to “prostrate ourselves at her Majesty’s feet, humbly submitting ourselves to her mercy, and laying forth our grievances to herself, whereof we thought she had not so true information of others.” Then “what would they have done had they taken over the Court?” Essex was asked. “They would have . . . called a Parliament,” he replied.[118] If these protestations were at least partially true, the thoughts of the lead conspirators were small, and far from the issues out of which Hamlet arose. The Essex group was divided in its purposes, however. The thoughts of Blount and others were of blood and “conscience,” and perhaps in some way of revenge. The Catholic Francis Tresham escaped execution for his attachment to this plot, only to fall in with the Gunpowder conspirators four years later. Acquainted with these men, Southampton was aware of different levels of anger and different kinds of desperate action that religion might seem to sanction. His own family was pacific and cunning in their faith, but not all of his allies were so, and his own mind was kept well hidden. As a political drama, Hamlet would provide for the persecuted, if they could appreciate its complexities, only an agnostic response to their predicament. They could, of course, understand Hamlet as they wished, as Sir Christopher Blount, on the eve of the rebellion, found Richard II an incitement to the action he would soon take. The friends of Essex did not commission a performance of Hamlet, however. It might not have yet been staged; or if it had, it would have seemed of little use to those who wished without qualm or hesitation to take arms against a sea of troubles.




Where, then, does this analysis leave the matter of Shakespeare’s great ambition in composing Hamlet? The play is, like Julius Caesar but much more widely and deeply so, a political drama with no simple message for the just and the unjust. It is not more likely to beget a plot than to confound one. Moreover, politics in Hamlet is only a single point of reference, to which other points (especially religion, ethics, and psychology) must be connected if they can. One way of accounting for Shakespeare’s tragic and comic exuberance in creating his fiction is to attribute to the author himself the same kind of troubled excitement that Hamlet shows in fashioning a play that will test, not just the conscience of a king, but the moral coherence of the universe. It is just possible (and more is to be said on the possibility in the next chaper) that he planned to make this perilous intellectual journey with Southampton as one of his companions. In the earl’s twenty-eighth year, at the beginning of his imprisonment, he was still referred to by contemporaries as “young,” and Hamlet was still “young” at age thirty.[119]  Southampton was not Hamlet; but like Hamlet’s player-friend who wept for Hecuba, he might have been meant, “in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / [To] force his soul” to the playwright’s conceit and with a special intensity share one of the world’s most daunting adventures.

Hamlet is not Everyman; and his world is stunningly particular and diverse, as palpable and resistant to abstraction or idealization as any that Shakespeare ever imagined. Everything between the “majestical roof fretted with golden fire” and the quintessential “dust” into which every living body must be resolved is individual. Even Yorick’s bones retain their identity. Denmark is a society alive with the tensions of a “real” state: on the verge of war, rife with political intrigues and personal obliquities, shaken by the rage and despair of its most sensitive citizen. One might have expected, as one saw in Titus and would see in Troilus or Lear, a tragic resolution of conflicts through the natural operation of “appetite,” the “universal wolf,” devouring indiscriminately those who prey and who are preyed upon. But Shakespeare at his most daring introduces into this world a spirit from another, who refuses to let entropic evil proceed to its anticipated exhaustion. In Titus and Lear the gods are antique and absent, discernible only in the sound of their names. In Hamlet, something from the world beyond, not certainly not sent by heaven, thrusts itself into a community morally diseased to announce that the natural way to equilibrium is intolerable. Even the moral law must be suspended in the service of a phlebotomizing justice. Imperious in its commands, the Ghost offers no credentials; it assumes that Hamlet will know or learn the truth that, in spy-rich Elsinore, it has needed no “indirection” to discover. It presses to extraordinary action a man who must now realize that every deed or demurral is seen by an invisible eye.

Shakespeare does not, then, limit himself in Hamlet to dramatizing what the opacity or silence of the “other” world will allow. He writes from the premise (as a playwright he can choose his premises) that nature’s veil is penetrable by a spirit of health or by a goblin damned. If the “undiscovered country” is the home of a devil, it must also be home to a God. And in the appearance of either an “honest” ghost or a fiend, God must be ordinant--either, as the theologians say, in his permissive will or his will of good pleasure. The space beneath Hamlet’s firmament is anything but small, then, if it is contained and permeated by the supernatural. Immense are the questions that are raised in that site of conflict, not the least of which are whether religion may demand of conscience something other than morality, and whether providence is to be blessed for allowing its destructive lightning as well as its nurturing rain to fall alike upon the just and unjust. Hamlet never answers the first of these to his complete satisfaction. In struggling with the second he comes to a conclusion that quiets if it does not console his mind. He seems at last to think that whatever is or will be is acceptable--though not whatever is, is right: not even an acquiescent Job could be so radically optimistic. And Job was visited by God himself, not by a ghost who is at best from purgatory.

Robert Southwell in his Epistle of Comfort surveyed the sacred and profane history he knew with faith in a cosmic process that was inviolably moral. He was sure that the many who have suffered persecution for righteousness’ sake will have more than a compensatory reward in the Kingdom of Heaven; that God, whose goodness is absolute and whose justice is qualified only by mercy, has been well within his rights to afflict whole populations with horrible “chastisements” since everyone has sinned and deserved worse than God has given (EC, 55r-76r). Of all the certitudes in this book that Shakespeare read and pondered seriously, this faith was perhaps the most difficult to leave unquestioned. What would the pagan gods have done, had they seen Hecuba’s reaction to the slaughter of Priam by Pyrrhus? The player (whom Hamlet befriends and who is Shakespeare’s comrade) knows:

             if the gods themselves did see her then,
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husband’s limbs,
The instant burst of clamor that she made,
Unless things mortal move them not at all,
Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven,
And passion in the gods.


And if the gods would have wept for Hecuba, why not for Ophelia and for many more?



To Chapter 4

[1]. Cf. Faust, lines 3682-3697, and Hamlet 4.5.48-55. In one of his conversations with Eckermann, Goethe admits, “my Mephistopheles sings a song from Shakespeare, and why should he not?” (see Cyrus Hamlin, ed., Faust: A Norton Critical Edition, 90-91, 413).
[2]. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, transl. Thomas Carlyle (1824), in Sacks and Whan, eds., Hamlet: Enter Critic, 67.
[3]. “Hamlet and his Problems,” in Selected Essays: 1917-1932, in Sacks and Whan, eds., Hamlet: Enter Critic, 53-58.
[4]. A.C. Bradley and like-minded critics have tried to downplay the role of conscience in the play. Stephen Greenblatt has joined Bradley in defining the “conscience” that makes cowards of us all as “consciousness.” See Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 85-88, 407n11; Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory, 208. For a defense of the “ethical” reading, see Catherine Belsey, “The Case of Hamlet’s Conscience,” 127-48; Harold Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 492.
[5]. “The World of ‘Hamlet,’”, in Price, ed., Hamlet: Critical Essays, 58.
[6]. See Edwards, ed., Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 20.
[7]. Cedric Watts, Hamlet, 58.
[8]. Sacks and Whan, eds., Hamlet: Enter Critic, 54.
[9]. Quoted in Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, eds., The Plays of William Shakespeare, 22.75.
[10]. According to S. A. Blackmore, it was not. He saw the play as clearly set in the “early part of the eleventh century . . . when the king of Denmark was suzerain of England.” Hamlet was supposed, then, to have attended one of the “schools of philosophy” which were famous throughout Northern Germany in the period. See The Riddles of Hamlet and the Newest Answers, 30-33. Polonius, however, acted the part of Julius Caesar “i’ th’ university” (3.2.99)--surely much after “the early part of the eleventh century,” when universities did not exist--though Shakespeare may not have known this. We can often discern in Shakespeare’s works a general chronological framework which may be purposely or accidentally violated.
[11]. As it was seen by Levin in The Question of Hamlet.
[12]. What Happens in Hamlet?, 52.
[13]. Among Catholic studies have been those of I. J. Semper, “The Ghost in Hamlet: Pagan or Christian?”, and Sister Miriam Joseph, C. S. C., “Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet.” Writing as a Protestant, Roy Battenhouse believed that the Ghost was too pagan to have come even from a Catholic Purgatory (“The Ghost in Hamlet: A Catholic ‘Linchpin’?”). Eleanor Prosser, claiming that in the play “the characters are consistently Protestant in their viewpoint,” was sure nonetheless that both Catholics and Protestants in Shakespeare’s audience would have considered the Ghost a demon (Hamlet and Revenge, 123, 97-143). Robert West and Roland Mushat Frye have both judged the Ghost “ambiguous.” West insisted that “we . . . do not need to know the ghost’s denomination, and to insist upon it is gratuitous” (“King Hamlet’s Ambiguous Ghost,” 1117). Frye thought it important to consider Hamlet a “Protestant,” whatever the Ghost happened to be (The Renaissance Hamlet, 14-29, 261).
Stephen Greenblatt (who believes that such conflicting analyses as just noted are part of the evidence that Shakespeare deliberately forces together “radically incompatible accounts of almost everything that matters in Hamlet”) (Hamlet in Purgatory, 239-40) seems to maintain opposing views of the ghost simultaneously. He considers the purgatorial specter to have a meta-sectarian significance, in Shakespeare’s opportunistic secular use of “certain Catholic ghost beliefs” (199) to theatricalize a momentous human problem: that of “negotiating with the dead, or, rather, with those who were at once dead and yet, since they could still speak, appeal, and appall, not completely dead” (256). At the same time, Greenblatt finds the play driven “by the logic of Protestant polemics”--against the too solid and fleshly Catholic Eucharist (242) as well as the too magical and mercenary Roman Purgatory, which Shakespeare “perhaps” felt needed to be “disenchanted” (253). Yet the critic also senses in Hamlet the “reverse” of that disenchantment, wondering if Shakespeare, “with his recusant family background [and] education . . . felt a covert loyalty to [old and damaged institutional] structures and a dismay that they were being gutted.” (253-54)
[14]. McGee, The Elizabethan Hamlet, 174, 73.
Thomas Nashe, who may have seen the Ur-Hamlet (to which he alludes in the Preface to Greene’s Menaphon [1589]), wrote in 1593 about the devil’s disguising himself as the ghost of a parent and imitating “the voices of God’s vengeance” to bring a soul to “damnation” (The Terrors of the Night, in Steane, ed., Thomas Nashe: The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, 211). Nashe’s influence on Shakespeare’s Hamlet was considerable (see especially the many essays on the subject by J. J. M. Tobin [for example, in Hamlet Studies 5 (1983) and 7 (1985), and the bibliographical references included there]). If Nashe in The Terrors was thinking of the Ur-Hamlet’s ghost, the specter does not seem to have been a purgatorial one and might have been easily identifiable as a demon.
[15]. Hoff, Hamlet’s Choice.
[16]. Akrigg, Southampton, 190.
[17]. Stopes, Southampton, 18.
[18]. For conflicting views on dating Hamlet anywhere from late-1599 to mid-1601 see Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 1-13, and Edwards, ed., Hamlet, 1-8. See also Wells and Taylor, A Textual Companion, 122-23.
[19]. On the use made of Richard by some of the conspirators in the Essex rebellion, see Ure, ed., King Richard II, lvii-lxii; on Troilus and Cressida and the rebellion, see Bevington, ed., Troilus and Cressida, 11-19.
[20]. Edwards, ed., Hamlet, 5-6.
[21]. Akrigg, Southampton, 96. Southampton’s playgoing is reported in a letter written by Rowland Whyte, dated September 29, 1599. The Swiss traveler Thomas Platter saw Julius Caesar in London on September 21st (see Daniell, ed., Julius Caesar, 12-13). Southampton and Platter may have seen the same performance.
[22]. Both writers, of course, are aware of the New Testament’s “mote” in the “eye” (Matt. 7:3; Luke 6:42). But Shakespeare follows Southwell in putting it in the “mind.”
[23]. The adjective “visious” appears in “Fortunes Falsehood” (27), two poems after “Lewd Love is Losse” in the manuscript tradition.  “Mole of nature” appears only in Southwell’s poem and in Hamlet (Chadwyck-Healey).

The lines in Southwell about “Moth of the mind” and “mole of natures rust” are surely meant to recall Matthew 6.19: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where rust and moth destroy” (Vulgate: “ubi aerugo, et tinea domolitur”). Thus to some extent Southwell’s “Moth” refers to an insect. But Southwell also alludes here to Matthew 7.3-5, appealing to a double meaning. In Matthew, Christ’s point is not about irritation (cf. Hamlet’s “ a mote . . .to trouble the mind’s eye”), but about blindness: “Hypocrite, first cast out that beame out of thine owne eye; and then shalt thou see clearely to cast out the mote out of thy brothers eye” (Mat. 7.5). It is in fact Southwell who alludes to the blinding suggested in the Gospel passage. “Moth of the mind, Eclypse of reason’s light.” A “mote” eclipses reason, limiting insight, as the small moon eclipses the sun (and note that Horatio uses the words “eclipse” and “grave,” which are also in Southwell’s stanza). Thus Southwell is punning here, making use of the fact not only that “moth” and “mote” were homophones, but that “mote” was often spelled “moth”—not only as in Q2 Hamlet, but in Shakespeare’s Henry V, 4.1 (Folio spelling): “Therefore should every Souldier . . . wash every Moth out of his Conscience.” Here too, only a year or so before Hamlet, Shakespeare seems to be recalling Southwell’s “Moth of the mind.”

[24].  Since “The burning Babe” was not published until 1602, Shakespeare’s quotation of it must have come from a manuscript source. Also first published in 1602 were “New heaven, new warre,” “New Prince, new pompe,” “Sinnes heavie loade,” “A Phansie,” “Davids Peccavi,” and “Josephs Amazement.” The shared collocation “vanished NEAR sight NEAR shrunk NEAR away” is unique to Southwell and Shakespeare until the nineteenth century (Chadwyck-Healey).
[25]. Cf. Epistle of Comfort, 198v: “Wonne Satan, and chased him out.”
[26]. Hamlet 1.3.53; 2.1.62; 2.2.295-96; 3.3.15; 4.7.21; 5.1.275-76. “Epitaph on Lady Margaret Sackville,” 16 (cf., however, Isaiah 40:2 and Ecclus. 26:15); MMFT, A5r-v, 14r; HS, 14; EC, 106r-v, 15v, 18v, 32r; 8r, 15v; 18v; 16r, 17v; 180v.
[27]. Some of these words are of little significance: “stiffly,” “encumber’d,” “shatter,” “brute,” “sheep-skins” (cf. “Mans civill warre,” 14; EC, 60v, 51r, 113v, 126r). Others are less commonplace: “Shipwrights,” “supposal,” “droppings,” “impotency,” “Repugnant,” “clemency,” “enactures” (“ennactors,” F.1), ” “witching,” “flagon,” “portraiture,” “occurrents,” “appurtenance” (cf. EC, 208r; MMFT, 26r; EC, 157r, 208r, 183r; “Fortunes Falsehoode,” 32; EC, 171r; “The Virgins salutation,” 3; EC, 134v, 131v; TD, 30; EF, 10). Some are of interest because they occur in Southwell’s Epistle of Comfort in rather close proximity to one another: “Saviour,” “pastours,” “God willing,” along with “shipwrite” and “impotencye” (213v, 208v, 206v, 208r, 208r).
[28]. “A holy Hymme,” 46; SPC, 617; EF, 16 and EC, 99r; “Josephs Amazement,” 21; EC 7v. Cf. Hamlet 1.5.77; 3.1.64, 70, 75; 3.4.207.
[29]. What Happens in Hamlet?, 52.
[30]. The Renaissance Hamlet?, 25.
[31]. Lines from A Warning for Fair Women, a play in Shakespeare’s company’s repertoire about 1599. Quoted in Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, 25. See Hamlet 1.2.201-2, 1.1.47.
[32]. Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 105.
[33]. Hamlet and Revenge, 120.
[34]. Cf. also Hamlet 1.1.143-44: We do it wrong . . . , / To offer it show of violence,” and MMFT, 50r: “violent in offering wrong.”
[35]. Though, as many assume, Shakespeare might have had Psalm 8 in mind in composing his passage (“What is man that thou art so myndful of hym...”), his wording is in fact closer to Southwell’s.
[36]. See Chapter 5, n19, below.
[37]. See Furness, ed., Variorum Hamlet, 1.66, 2.239; Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 440-43.
[38]. Cf. also “loan oft loses both itself and friend” (1.3.76) and “What joy to live?” “Heere love is lent for loane of filthy gaine, / Most frends befriend themselves with friendships shew” (13-14). In the biblical story of Tobias, a favorite of Southwell’s, the young man’s father, Tobit, in his advice to his son (Ch. 4), provides one of many prototypes for all such speeches of fatherly counsel.
[39]. Among other collocations of words in the play’s fourth scene that can be found in Southwell are: “swinish . . .  / Soil (19-20) (cf. “swyne . . . soyle” [EC, 43r]) and “the noble substance of a doubt” (37) (cf. “A Soule of noble substance” (EC, 46r).
 This second parallel suggests a new emendation for a notoriously difficult textual crux in Hamlet. The context is:
                                              these men,
          Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
          Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,
          His virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
          As infinite as man may undergo,
          Shall in the general censure take corruption
          From that particular fault: the dram of ev’l
          Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
          To his own scandal.
The idea is not (as critics since Steevens have stated in emending Quarto 2’s reading from “of a doubt” to “often dout”) that the smallest drop of evil frequently “douts” (“blots out” or “extinguishes”) the (a?) noble substance (substance of what?). Hamlet is speaking about “virtues” that are vitiated in the popular mind (“in the general censure take corruption / From”). Virtues are not “substances” but inhere in the soul, which as Southwell suggests, is a substance; and the soul cannot be “douted” except through annihilation. Its extinction is clearly not at issue here. If, in light of Southwell’s wording, line 37 is emended to read “soul” before “doubt” (on the theory that a missed word is among the simplest of authorial or compositorial errors, that this emendation involves less tampering with the text than does Steevens’, that an extra-metrical line is not unheard of in Shakespeare, and that Southwell’s pervasive influence elsewhere in the text gives the change some authority), the wording and sense would be as follows: “the dram of ev’l / Doth all the noble substance of a soul doubt / To his own scandal”; that is, “a small stain of wickedness tends to cast doubt on the nobility of the entire soul, destroying its reputation.” (Boswell conjectured that “doubt” might mean “to bring into doubt or suspicion, as to fear means to create fear; to pale is to make pale” [Furness, ed., Variorum Hamlet, 1.84].)
[40]. EC, 54v, 55v, 61r, 69v; 153r, 155r; 182r; 55r; “Loves Garden grief,” 9, 12, 19-21; EC, 152r, 157r; EF, 6 (+ EC, 66r: “barke”); EC, 59v; 57v; 54v; 39r; “cut off”: eleven occurrences in EC; “A Holy Hymme,” 46. Compare also 1.5.65: “Holds such an enmity with blood of man” and EC 8r-v: “beareth such a furious hatred unto man . . . enimtye [sic].”
[41]. Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 458. When the ghost signals with his voice that he has changed his underground location, Hamlet utters a rhetorical question, “Hic et ubique?” (“Here and everywhere?”). Jenkins thought that the “Latin tag” sounded like a conjuration formula. Clare Asquith, however, has pointed out that the phrase is to be found (aptly enough for the play’s context) in the Roman Missal’s liturgy for the dead--in “a prayer . . . for those buried in unconsecrated ground” (Shadowplay, 158). This prayer in fact is prescribed “pro his qui in cimiterio requiescunt,” that is, for those buried in “the cemetery,” although “ubique” may point to unconsecrated ground as well. The text of this “Collect” runs as follows: Deus, cuius miseratione animae fidelium requiescunt: famulis et famulabus tuis, et omnibus hic et ubique in Christo quiescentibus, da propitius veniam peccatorum; ut, a cunctis reatibus absoluti, tecum sine fine laetentur. (O God, by whose mercy the souls of the faithful lie in rest, graciously grant to your servants and handmaids, and to all who here and everywhere repose in Christ, that, absolved from all their sins they may rejoice with you forever.) Hamlet thus, in a burlesquing and bewildered mood, speaks of the ghost both as a devil (“truepenny”?) and as a soul who has not yet achieved the “rest” that one may pray for him to have.
[42]. Hibbard, ed., Hamlet, 194.
[43]. Joseph Hunter, quoted in Furness, ed., Variorum Hamlet, 1.66.
[44]. See, for example, Geroge Russell French, in Furness, ed., Variorum Hamlet, 2.238-39.
[45]. Read, Mr. Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth, 1.18-20.
[46]. Camden’s Annales (An. 33 Elizabeth: 1590/91) is quoted with some satisfaction by the Jesuit Henry More in his Historia Missionis Anglicanae Societatis Jesu (1660), 128. See also Read, Mr. Secretary Walsingham, 3.442.
[47]. The agents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, commissioned to observe Hamlet by Claudius, not by his minister, also have predecessors in the Humble Supplication. John Savage, a participant in the Babington conspiracy, had made a vow to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, as Hamlet had determined to kill the King. Southwell reports that “two Pensioners were charged to have a spetiall eye upon him, and to watch him as long as he stayed [at Court], and yet was he suffered to goe up and downe the Court, and usually to haunt the Presence . . .” (HS, 23). The old “Amleth” story had two men escorting Hamlet to England with the fatal letter, but their role in the story was thus limited. Southwell’s “pensioners” may have inspired Shakespeare to expand it in the way that he did. There is no need, then, to speculate that the Ur-Hamlet had suggested the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern story in its fulness.
[48]. See Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, 221, 336-37.
[49]. Brian Vickers follows a scholarly tradition in assigning Titus 4.1 to Peele rather than to Shakespeare, but his case for the attribution is not the strongest. Even Dover Wilson, on whose editorial commentary Vickers relies heavily in establishing the presence of Peele in the play, recanted in 1967 his claim of 1948 that Peele’s hand was evident in several parts: “I no longer believe that the author, after the first Act, was anyone but Shakespeare throughout” (Titus Andronicus [1968 ed.], lxv). The metrical data of Philip Timberlake, in which Vickers puts great faith, reveals that Titus 4.1. is no more likely to be Peele’s than, say, King John 4.3. As Timberlake candidly admitted, King John was an embarrassment to his theories about the evidentiary value of  “feminine endings” as distinguishing markers of Shakespeare’s authorship (see Timberlake’s The Feminine Ending in English Blank Verse,  108-110, 114). Vickers’ own “vocative” test shows almost the same frequency of vocatives in Titus 4.3 (which he attributes to Shakespeare) as in 4.1 (Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-Author, 227). Vickers’ appeal to “rates of occurrence and frequencies” to establish his points has been questioned by Thomas Merriam, in a review of Shakespeare: Co-Author.
[50]. Thompson, Shakespeare and the Classics, 52.
[51]. See Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 34-35. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, John Wardroper and Arthur Freeman assume (as have others) that Shakespeare (and no one else) found reason to change the name of the counsellor from “Corambis” to “Polonius.” They do not deal with Jenkins’ contention that since Quarto 1 (1603), in which “Corambis” appears, is a derivative text, postdating Shakespeare’s original version which seems to be represented in Quarto 2 (1604), “Polonius” was the original name and “Corambis” its successor, having made its way, not necessarily by Shakespeare’s intervention, into stage performances upon which the earlier published (but not written) text was based. Jenkins assumes that any “personal satire must have lain in the name Polonius itself.” In All’s Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare uses the name “Corambus,” as he deliberately recalls a host of names from his earlier plays (4.3.162). Perhaps this recollection suggests that “Corambis” was originally his. See below, Chapter 5.
[52].  Spenser’s Mother Hubberds Tale, which contained a notably wicked “Foxe,” was said by Thomas Middleton in 1604 to have been “called in” (see The Blacke Booke; A Satire, in The Works of Thomas Middleton, 8.31). Robert Cecil, for one, was known as “The Fox.”
[53]. The second scene of act two is the longest and most miscellaneous in Hamlet. Among the signs of Southwell’s voice in it that have not already been noted are the following:
                      Hamlet                                                            Southwell
       269-70:                                                                 SPC, 94:
       in the beaten way of friendship                            vertues rough unbeaten straightes
       324:                                                                       “A vale of teares,” 45-51:
       tickle a’ th’ sere                                                    tickle . . . seared
       378-9:                                                                    EC,  97r, 100v, 127r:
       I am but mad north-north-west. When the             Arise north . . . , southwynde blowe; hauke;
       wind is southerly I know a hawk from                     sawen in sunder
       a hand-saw

       445:                                                                       “Content and rich,” 50:
       more handsome than fine                                      more fit, then fine
       460:                                                                       EC, 74r:
       damned light                                                         the fyer of hell hath light to damnation
       463:                                                                       EC, 59v:
       eyes like carbuncles                                              eyes . . . carbuncles
       567:                                                                       HS, 14:
       a dull and muddy-mettled rascal                              if any mynd were soe muddy; “At home in
                                                                                    Heaven,” 31: muddy minded
[54]. The words “lawful espials,” in the Folio, are absent from Quarto 2. Their ironic relevance to a major theme in the play makes one feel the need of the Folio reading here, despite the metrical problems. See Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 276.
[55]. See Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 484-93 for a survey of surveys of interpretations, and for a penetrating but not always persuasive explication of his own.
[56]. The “reported” or “memorially reconstructed” text of Quarto 1 moves the soliloquy to Act 2, in an attempt, it seems, to remove an “inconsistency” due to the reporters’ own misinterpretation.
[57]. Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 488.
[58]. Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 489.
[59]. Cf. EC, 54r: sea . . .troubles; TD, 32: troublesome sea . . . sea of dangers.
[60]. EC, 128r, 137v, 113r, 114r, 123r, 117r, 127v, 112v, 130v, (86v), 112r, 113r, 116v, 116v, 127v,128v, 119v, 119v, 122v, 155r, 112r, (94v), 116v, 122v, 159v, 146v, 118r, 127r, 131r, 112v, 135r, (99r), 120r, 113r, 130v, 122v, 140v, 121v, 131r, 134v, 127v, 126r, (101r), 126v, 112v, 134v, 135v-136r, 118v, 136r, 128v, 121r, 121v, (105r), 117r, 119r, 129r, 118v, (172r), 123v, 112r, 121v, (178v), 114v, 113v, 142v, 130v, 127v, 116r. The parentheses indicate pages not much before or after the set of chapters in question, which extend from fols. 112 to 167. Most of Hamlet’s language is concentrated on 112-136.  It should be noted that many of these pages in the Epistle have already been shown to have left their marks on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors (see above, Chapters 1 and 3). I have tried to reconstruct the soliloquy by searching all pre-1604 works in the Chadwyck-Healey database, Literature Online. In my search, no work was in any way comparable to Southwell’s Epistle in the extent of parallel language within such narrow parameters.
[61]. See also EC, 59r-v, where Southwell asks his reader to consider, among all the “hazardes and calmityes” of life, “the displeasure of superiours . . . , the contempt, ignominy, and reproch, we receyve of our inferiours. . . .”
[62]. Devlin, Life of Robert Southwell, 321.
[63]. Cf. “The Nativitie of Christ,” 15-16: This gift doth here the gever geven bestow: / Gift to this gift let each receiver bee.” Also, “The Epiphanie,” 21: “And with their gifts the givers hearts do stay. . . .”
[64]. “There’s something in his soul / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood, / and I do doubt the hatch . . .  / Will be some danger” (3.1.165-67; cf. SPC 175-76: when feare was hatched, / Incompatible brood [sat] in virtues nest”).
[65]. According to the OED, Shakespeare’s was the first written use of the verb “cope” to mean “encounter” (in Lucrece); the inspiration probably came from Southwell, who uses “coped” in a different sense, “covered,” but in such a way that it might actually be understood as “encountered.”
[66]. Even Hamlet’s teasing of Polonius over the shape of a cloud--”Methinks it is like a weasel . . . Or like a whale”--may stem from the playwright’s recollections of Southwell’s “Ousell” (or woosel), “cloud,” and “Whales” (3.2.379-81; EC, 6r-v). Among other parallels of interest are:


                    Hamlet 3.2                                                            Southwell
       60:                                                                             SPC, 251-2:
       candied tongue                                                         canded . . . tongue

       112:                                                                           MMFT, 54r:
       shall I lie in your lap?                                                lying in thy lap . . . body beautified
       [asked of the “beautified Ophelia” (2.2.109)]              [re. Christ’s body in the lap of Mary
                                                                                        Magdalen]; “At home in Heaven,” 14: laid him
                                                                                        In our . . . lapp;
       167-72:                                                                      MMFT, 30v:
       women’s fear and love hold quantity,                        thy love is little helped with
       In neither aught, or in extremity.                                 this lesson: for the more it
       .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .                                loveth the more it feareth: and the
       . . . As my love is siz’d, my fear is so.                         more desirous to enjoy, the more
       Where love is great, the littlest doubts are                   doutbtfull it is to loose. It neither
                fear;                                                                  hath measure in hopes, nor meane in  
       Where little fears grow great, great love                 feares; 34r: extremity
       196-97:                                                                      MMFT, 34v:
       The violence of either grief or joy                             they can neither beare the joy, nor
       Their own enactures with themselves destroy            brook the sorrow, but as well the one as
                                                                                        the other is inough to kill them; 35r: violent
       390:                                                                          “Sinnes heavie loade,” 31:
       Now could I drink hot blood                                     She shortly was to drink thy dearest blood;
                                                                                        (and the following poem,) “Christ’s bloody
                                                                                         sweat,” 9: How burneth blood
[67]. See Bullough, Sources, 7.33.
[68]. When Hamlet, having made his play’s characters King and Queen, says, “Gonzago is the Duke’s name” (3.2.239), he recalls by mistake the original story--a sign, as Jenkins notes, “that points to Shakespeare” rather than the author of the Ur-Hamlet “as the innovator in the matter of the poisoning” (Hamlet, 102).
[69]. See Martindale, The Vocation of Aloysius Gonzaga, 132-33.
[70]. Giulio Romano, the only historical artist mentioned by Shakespeare in his works (Winter’s Tale 5.2.97) was employed for a time by the Gonzagas of Mantua, beginning in 1524 (see Brinton, The Gonzaga--Lords of Mantua). In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare writes of “the Marquis of Montferrat” (1.2.113). Aloysius Gonzaga was a kinsman of the Marquis and spent several months at Monferrato in the early 1580’s, before entering the Society of Jesus (see Martindale, Aloysius Gonzaga, 13, 69).
[71]. See Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2.612-24; Brown, et al., eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1061-62.
[72]. Cf. “Bow, stubborn knees, and heart, with strings of steel, / Be soft...” (3.3.70-71) and the Prayer’s “I am . . . Bowed down with many an iron chain. . . . I bow the knees of mine heart” (9-11).
[73]. EC, 127r, 137r, 160v, 197r, 211r; SPC, 523; EC, 137r, 139v (cf. Isaiah 1:18); Ham 3.3.68, TD, 29.
[74]. Pertinent also to Claudius’s failure to repent are two passages from Southwell’s Epistle unto his Father: “though it be possible, yet is it scarce credible that his death should find favor whose whole life hath earned wrath, and that his repentance should be accepted that more for fear of hell and love of himself than for love of God of loathsomeness of sin crieth for mercy” (9); and “Not every short sigh will be a sufficient satisfaction, nor very knock a warrant to get in. Many cry, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and are not accepted” (14).
[75]. On the parallels between Hamlet and the story of David, see Gene Edward Veith, Jr., “‘Wait upon the Lord’: David, Hamlet, and the Problem of Revenge.” Belleforest had noted the similarity between Amleth’s feigned madness and that of David before the King of Gath (Bullough, Sources, 7.90; 1 Sam. 21:12-13). Southwell used the example of David to justify righteous dissimulation: “David upon just cause feigned himself madd; but his madnes was an effect of perfect wisdome, and Reason the guide of his seeming folly” (HS, 9). Perhaps it was this point of resemblance between the two tales that led Shakespeare to develop others.
[76]. Shakespeare uses the word “inveigled” only once, in Troilus and Cressida (2.3.91), written near the time of Hamlet.
[77]. Compare also EF, 17: “our very hairs, which are...but excrements” and Hamlet 3.4.121: “Your bedded hair, like life in excrements.”
[78]. Brown, ed., Two Letters, xxiii.
[79]. Cf. also:
                             Hamlet 3.4                                                        EC
       89:                                                                        55r-v:
       eyes . . . soul . . . spots                                          eyes . . . unspotted soule
       93:                                                                        55v:
       Stew’d in corruption                                             stewes of an aduoultresse . . . corrupted
       165-7:                                                                   54r-v:
       Refrain . . . easiness . . . abstinence . . . easy        restrayntes . . . easilye . . . absteyne from
                                                                                    fleshlye desires. . .


[80]. See Florio’s Montaigne, 2.12: “The heart and life of a mighty and triumphant emperor, is but the breakfast of a seely little worm.”
[81]. EC, 50r, 50v, 50v, 52r, 62r, 62r, 62r, 65v, 76r, 77r, 82r, 84v.
Stephen Greenblatt tries to wring out of the first lines of this passage in Hamlet a satiric attack by Shakespeare, from a Protestant point of view, on the “crude materialism” of the Catholic Eucharist. The supper, Greenblatt says, “where the host does not eat but is eaten is the Supper of the Lord.” The critic acknowledges the implausibility of presenting the body of Polonius as “the body of God,” but thinks that the subsequent allusion to the Diet of Worms makes the “theological resonance . . . sound.” (Hamlet in Purgatory, 240-41; and in more detail, “The Mousetrap,” 136-62). Critics should have freedom in their interpretations, especially for clever ones such as this. A number of cautions may be suggested, however. Polonius is nowhere referred to as a “host”--a word crucial to Greenblatt’s analogy. The worm at unhosted supper has for centuries been a non-sectarian image, and by the time Hamlet was written, vermin had dieted both on the Catholic emperor and the apostate monk who had attended the “convocation” at Worms. The main purpose of the whole passage is to stress the equality of “king” and “beggar,” or emperor and monk, “two dishes at one table” at the worms’ feast, not to distinguish between superior and inferior “theological” positions. Polonius is not a unique and special morsel, but one of indiscriminate millions. Furthermore, the worms in Greenblatt’s allegory would seem ill-suited to religious controversy. Are they Catholic communicants eating the Polonian “body of God” which they think is living though it is neither divine nor alive, instead of just worms, who eat only dead flesh and recycle it? If communicants, and objects of derision, why should they be shown triumphing over every one they eat (as the “only emperor[s] for diet,” or as “conqueror” worms)--until they are eaten themselves? In what version of Christian doctrine are the eucharistic consumers consumed? Hamlet calls the worms “politic” rather than devout, a strange epithet to attach to a communicant. Shakespeare (rather than Hamlet) hints at Luther; but Luther (as Greenblatt notes) believed in the Real Presence (in “consubstantiated” rather than “transubstantiated” form), and so was not the best Reformer to use in mocking Catholic eucharistic doctrine. Luther is in fact alluded to unkindly later in the play. It is true that some Protestants in their polemics followed the Catholic eucharistic host in its “progress” from mouth through “guts” to privy (see Greenblatt, “Mousetrap,” 144); but the route taken by the itinerant flesh of which Hamlet speaks is from “king” to “worm” to “fish” to “man,” emphasizing  the indignity done to the king (like a Claudius) who becomes (as would Milton’s Satan) incarnate in “bestial slime,” before parading through human “guts.” The interpretative logic that would connect Hamlet’s words in this passage to polemical rhetoric about the Eucharist is difficult to see, though the wit that Shakespeare bred of maggots (“How witty’s ruine,” said Donne) is impressive enough as a response to mortality.
[82]. From Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares compare “courage being cold and dull, and Justice in due revenge slacke” (A4r) with Hamlet 4.4.33: “dull revenge”; and “through too much preciseness . . . and by being too scrupulous” (MMFT, 19r) with 4.4.40-41: “scruple / Of thinking too precisely.”
[83]. See Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 144-45, 125, 175. On the “Lutheran” Hamlet see Waddington, “Lutheran Hamlet”; Sohmer, “Certain Speculations on Hamlet, the Calendar, and Martin Luther.”
[84]. See also EC, 33r: “lyfe . . . render”; 28v: “with his bloode, like Pelicans younglinges, revived.”
[85]. See “[The Virgine Maries] Nativity,” 6; SPC, 5; Devlin, Life of Robert Southwell, 311-14; Caraman, Henry Garnet, 1555-1606, and the Gunpowder Plot, 253-4, 403-24; and, of course, Macbeth 2.3.
[86]. See above, Chapter 4, II.
[87]. It used to be accepted that the dead Southwell’s fellow Jesuit “Anthony Rivers” reported in 1600 that at Christmas Queen Elizabeth was painted “in some places near half an inch thick.” Patrick H. Martin and John Finnis, however, have produced evidence that “Rivers” was in fact the earl of Worcester’s secretary, William Sterrell (“The Identity of ‘Anthony Rivers’”). Thomas Nashe, in Christ’s Tears (1594), wrote of a mistress “new painted over an inch thick” (see Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 554-55).
[88]. As Jenkins points out, the image of the violets springing up in the dead is “consciously or not, an echo of Persius, Sat. 1.39-40, ‘nunc non e tumulo fortunataque favilla / nascentur violae?’” [“Now will not violets from his tomb and blessed ashes spring?”] (Hamlet, 389). Shakespeare may, however, have recalled this passage as quoted in Montaigne’s Essays, “Of Glory,” 2.16; and Southwell’s prose may have spurred the recollection.
[89]. Hamlet 4.5.158, 175-86; 4.7.168, 172-73; 5.1.232, 243. “Christs returne out of Egypt,” 10-18. See Matt. 2:19-23 and the Vulgate Isaias 11:1: “Et egredietur virga de radice Iesse, Et flos de radice eius ascendet.”
[90]. See Lyons, “The Iconography of Ophelia.”
[91]. There is another respect in which Southwell is associated with this scene, one that is historical as well as textual. The gravedigger’s song, “In youth when I did love,” is an altered version of three stanzas from Thomas Lord Vaux’s poem, “The aged lover renounceth love” (as the title is given in Tottel’s Miscellany). The author, who died in 1556, leaving his son William the head of a staunchly Catholic house, was related both to Shakespeare (whose Throckmorton relative Sir George had married Lord Thomas’s sister Catherine) and to Southwell (whose great uncle had married Lord Thomas’s other sister Anne). Some of the Jesuit’s poetry seems influenced by the Tudor verse forms and subject matter of his elder kinsman. In particular, Southwell’s “Upon the Image of death,” which contributed to Hamlet’s memento mori, can be seen to have been written under the spell of Vaux’s “The aged lover,” which is described in one manuscript as “representing the image of Death.” The Vaux family in turn appreciated the literary works of their missionary cousin (to whom they at times gave shelter and other help): a number of manuscript poems of Lord William’s young son Henry are bound with manuscript copies of Southwell’s work in a collection now at the Folger Library.
On the Vaux family in general, as well as its relationship with Southwell, see Anstruther, Vaux of Harrowden: A Recusant Family. On the Shakespeare-Vaux-Southwell connections, see Devlin, Life of Robert Southwell, 263-64. On the Harmsworth  Manuscript, now at the Folger, see McDonald and Brown, eds., The Poems of Robert Southwell, xlvii-li. On Shakespeare’s use of Vaux, see Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 548-49, and Furness, ed., Variorum Hamlet, 1.380-81.
[92]. See above, p
[93]. See Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 571.
[94]. Additional parallels between Hamlet 5.2 and Southwell’s works are:
                              Hamlet                                                  Southwell
66:                                                                     HS, 18:       
thrown out his angle for my proper life              angled . . . to draw them to a Certaine destruction
88:                                                                     EC, 10v:
possession of dirt                                              possession . . . dirt
102:                                                                   EC, 114v:
a great wager                                                   a greate wager
131:                                                                    SPC, Prol. 17:
all’s golden words are spent                              the sweetest vaines [of literary talent] are spent
175:                                                                    EC, 130r:
foils [and Hamlet’s pun on the word at                 by whom man was willfullye foyled, him he
254]                                                                    should manfully foyle agayne
211:                                                                     EC, 44v:          
continual practice                                               continuall . . . practise
348:                                                                     “The Complaint of the B. Virgin . . . ,” 95, 105:
draw your breath in pain                                   the paine . . . draw thy breath
381-2:                                                                  EC, 101r, 101v, 108v, 111v, 126r, 127v:
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters         carnallitye; bloody; naturall; action; judgment;
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,                slaughtger; casuall
[95]. See, for example, Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet?, 68-70; Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, 160, 261. Greenblatt attributes to Hamlet a “distinctly Protestant temperament” (Hamlet in Purgatory, 240).
[96]. Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, 112-113.
[97]. The German text is quoted from Albert Cohn’s edition of the Brudermord in Shakespeare in Germany in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 245, 247, 273, 277. The English translation (emended) is that of Furness in Variorum Hamlet, 2.123, 132, 133.
[98]. Furness, ed., Variorum Hamlet, 2.128; Cohn, ed., Shakespeare in Germany, 261.
[99]. Quoted in McGee, Elizabethan Hamlet, 125.
[100]. On these and (perhaps) other “Catholic” features of Denmark, see McGee and Hoff.
The question of Ophelia’s funeral rites has been much debated. Were they “Roman” or “Anglican”? Dover Wilson’s contention that Quarto 2’s stage direction “Doct.” (for Doctor of Divinity) proves the ceremony a Protestant one has been disputed (for example, by Jenkins: Hamlet, 388; cf. What Happens in Hamlet, 300). Since there is nothing in the obsequies that is certainly inconsistent with Catholic practice and much that is consistent with it, one might well assume that Shakespeare wrote the episode to conform with the play’s other Catholic usages (see also Noble, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge, 84-85; Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, 297-309 [with the corrective of Michael MacDonald, “Ophelia’s Maimèd Rites”]; McGee, Elizabethan Hamlet, 149-51).
[101]. What Happens in Hamlet?, 84.
[102]. In Exodus 32, though it is the Levites who carried out Moses’s command, the Lord himself is said to have smitten the people who were killed (32:35). For the story of Saul, see 1 Samuel 15. These two passages are cited by Sister Miriam Joseph, in “Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet,” 501.
[103]. See Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 106-17.
[104]. A good summary of such rules, in writers like Lavater, Le Loyer, and Taillepied, can be found in Prosser, who fails to consider that many Protestants and Catholics would hardly give them credence.
For a brief and generally incisive critique of Prosser’s analysis of the implications of the Ghost for an understanding of the play, see Andrews, “Professor Prosser and the Ghost.”
[105]. See, for example, Battenhouse, “The Ghost in Hamlet: A Catholic ‘Linchpin’?”
[106]. Prosser writes that “the purpose of Purgatory is not to reform a sinner but to erase the debt of punishment incurred by past sins that were repented before death” (136). In fact, Catholics were not unanimous on this point. Some believed that those who died in their unrepented venial sins (as did Hamlet’s father) had to have them expiated by suffering, so that not all in that “prisonhouse” were in a pure “state of grace,” biding their time until the legal (but not psychological) residue of repented sins might be dissolved. It was not illogical for even sixteenth-century Catholics to assume, as modern Catholics do, that it was “more in keeping with the holiness of God that He would progressively transform and perfect the soul until it was ready for heaven than for Him to continue to punish a soul otherwise worthy of the beatific vision” (New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Purgatory”). In any case, so many of the popular beliefs about purgatory had little connection with formal theological opinion that it would be unwise to think that Shakespeare judged Hamlet blind or foolish for not formally consulting it.
[107]. See Winstanley, Hamlet and the Scottish Succession, 48-71; Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, 102-110; Alvin Kernan, Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright, 24-49. The notion goes back at least to James Plumptre in 1796 (see Furness, ed., Variorum Hamlet 2.236-37).
[108]. Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, 104; Winstanley, Hamlet and the Scottish Succession,  58; Hamlet 1.2.156-57, 181.
[109]. Humble Supplication, 18-19; Alison Plowden, The Elizbethan Secret Service, 92-102; Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots, 469-84.
[110]. Fraser, Mary, Queen of Scots, 252. Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, 31-37.
[111]. Fraser, Young Shakespeare, 54; Somerset, Elizabeth I, 406. The Ardens were also related to the Winters, Treshams, and Catesbys--names to be well represented in the Gunpowder Plot. See the genealogical chart between pages 144-45 in Hotson, I, William Shakespeare. Richard Wilson, in Secret Shakespeare, makes much of Somerville, speculating that the young Shakespeare was close enough to a genuine plot to have been turned by it away from militant Catholicism (104-25). For a take on Somerville different from Wilson’s, see Martin and Cox, “Who is ‘Somerville’?”
[112]. See Hamlet and Revenge, 28-34, 234-36.
[113]. Quoted from the edition of Helen Gardner, John Donne: The Divine Poems. On the historical context, see Klause, “The Two Occasions of Donne’s Lamentations of Jeremy.”
[114]. Southwell had recalled this declaration in his Epistle of Comfort, and Shakespeare had alluded to it in King John (EC, 5v; KJ 4.1.68-70).
[115]. Alan Sinfield is right in his judgment that Hamlet encourages an audience or a reader to “question divine justice” (“Hamlet’s Special Providence,” 97). So does the book of Job, and many other religious works in every age. But the author/redactor of Job raises his questions because his faith persists in some measure, not because he has either cynically or sorrowfully abandoned it and is attacking it in the gusto of fresh apostasy. Jonathan Dollimore leaves Hamlet out of his discussion of “The Disintegration of Providentialist Belief” in Shakespeare’s time (Radical Tragedy).
[116]. Jardine, ed., Criminal Trials, 2.343.
[117]. Akrigg, Southampton, 116.
[118]. Jardine, ed., Criminal Trials, 2.315-66.
[119]. Akrigg, Southampton, 130; Hamlet 1.1.170, 5.1.142-46, 161.

Copyright © John Klause 2013.